The Octopus in All of Us

On my writing desk, I keep an octopus pin that my wife gave me as a gift a few years back. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my sigil, ala George R.R. Martin and his famous turtle pin, but I do love what the octopus calls to mind when I try to tap into the deep, dark places of my subconscious where my best fiction resides.

               Octopuses—that’s right, not octopi!—are fascinating for a great many reasons, but to me what makes them especially compelling are the contrasts that define their character. They are intelligent creatures who live solitary lives; they are playful problem-solvers who relish the opportunity to retreat to their dens for hours on end; they are life-loving introverts with the capacity to both play and kill. Furthermore, they embody both the beauty and horror of existence in their colorful, amorphous, shape-shifting forms, and can appear, depending on the framing, to represent life’s awe-inspiring pageant or the unsettling dread at the heart of our existential plight.

               Years ago, I was struck by a dreamlike image that informed a short story I tried—and ultimately failed—to write. The image was of a giant octopus that had risen from the ocean floor to take into its tentacles a cruise ship that had blotted out the sun. In the octopus’s mind, this wasn’t an evil act. The octopus was merely sating its curiosity: a curiosity that grew evermore piqued when small, two-legged creatures began spilling from the vessel. But eventually, the octopus’s curiosity turned to shame. When that occurred, the octopus drug the ship to the ocean floor, to hide its sin from the sun.

               Last year, sometime after abandoning the aforementioned short story, my wife and I watched My Octopus Teacher together on Netflix. For the unassociated, the movie documents the bond a South African diver/filmmaker forges with a common octopus living in a kelp forest. Theirs is a bond predicated first and foremost on curiosity: both the filmmaker’s for this intelligent, alien-like creature of the deep, and the octopus’ for the strange being that returns day after day with an underwater camera. Part of the tension that drives the film’s narrative is the viewer’s understanding of the risks and rewards inherent to crossing the interspecies divide. Both are grasping at the others’ true nature, and, in doing so, both are risking the unintended consequences that their curiosity might bring.

               Curiosity isn’t the only factor that compels me to write, but it’s certainly one of the primary ones. I try, at least in some part, to evoke a sense of childlike joy in my writerly attempts. What’s interesting about curiousness, is that it is, by its very nature, a stumbling sort of process, a de facto admission that one isn’t fully knowledgeable about the subject one is curious about. But as one obtains knowledge, the potential for evil grows, be it in the intentional application of knowledge for one’s personal benefit at the expense of others; or in the application of imperfect knowledge for the purpose of benefitting others, leading to unforeseen and unintended consequences. While I’m often horrified by the malicious nature of those who use their knowledge to harm others, I’m no less disturbed by those who believe their knowledge is perfect, and, guided by that certainty, wreak all sorts of well-meaning havoc on the world.

               I love writing that is aware of—and alive with—this tension, writing that captures the moral ambiguity inherent to being a living, breathing being on this planet, beings driven by imperfect intellects. I’ve tried to bring that tension to life in my own work. Right now, I’m sitting on quite a few completed projects that are trying to find their way into the world. My hope is that when readers get a chance to spend time in my books, they will experience the same feelings that I do when I think of the octopus: a sense of wonder, a sense of fear, and the sense that the two feelings are inextricably bound together.

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