“There’s a double obsession,” says Gutkind. “The obsession of the people you write about, and the obsession of the writer.”
The obsession of Lee Gutkind of clearly visible in the way he can’t help but go off on tangents, the way he feels the need to stand up and demonstrate his stories using his whole body, and the way he introduces robots like he would an old friend. (“Oh, my God! [delighted…] This is Grace!”)
To write the way he does, Gutkind spends large amounts of time with people and projects to really understand what’s going on, on a human level. The focus of today’s panel is Gutkind’s book, “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”. In it, Gutkind writes about the things he learnt during his time “immersed” in the lives of various robotics experts.
Flicking through a series of slides, Gutkind does verbally what he is so admired for doing in his writing – he acts as a go-between, translating incredibly difficult ideas into stories for the lay man. Just like the audience today understand Gutkind’s words more easily aided by his slide show, Gutkind sees his job as a writer as “creating word-pictures” for his readers, bringing dry facts to life. By spending so much time in the world that he’s writing about, Gutkind manages to “figure out what’s really going on.”
He shows us a picture of one roboticist from the 1970s, and talks about the capabilities of robots he built. The story is humanized, though, by the kind of detail that only a writer might glean: the fact that, for 8 months, this guy slept in the ceiling vents of his lab and survived on Cheerios, bananas and chocolate milk that his friend brought him. It’s this kind of detail, these humanizing stories, the bring Gutkind’s material to life.
For those looking to write in this “immersive” style, like Gutkind, his advice is this – “Think globally, act locally.” While Gutkind’s concerns stretch as far as Curiosity on Mars, he accessed the stories he needed by talking to people involved in the robotics operations close to his home, approaching them and saying, simply, “I’d like to spend a lot of time with you, because I believe that what you’re doing is important.” This attempt at human connection is often enough. I’m sure the fact that he’s Lee Gutkind doesn’t hurt when he’s trying to get a foot in the door.
However, the double obsession is really what makes his articles and books hit home. Gutkind’s obsession, which reaches equal proportions to that of his subjects, is what makes his stories worth reading.
Lee Gutkind is still quite the Man About Town at the MWF this weekend, with plenty of opportunities to be caught before he jets back home. Saturday morning sees a seminar, “Creative NonFiction: A Movement, Not a Moment,” at the Wheeler Centre, “Fact, Fiction, Truth” on Saturday afternoon, the launch of Creative NonFiction, and a workshop on Creative NonFiction on Sunday.