Backward Steps

A while ago I read a newspaper article about some University of Washington biochemists who used teams of gamers to decipher the structure of a certain protein.


I do have a writing-related point.  You’ll have to trust me here. 


So anyway.   It was important work, because this protein, called a protease, is something that that retroviruses like HIV need in order to multiply.  And understanding the protein could lead to better anti-viral drugs. 


According to the article, a viral protease characteristically folds itself up to form a convoluted, three-dimensional figure.  Kind of like “a bicycle self-assembling from parts arrayed on a string.” 

I’m writing as if I understand this, but really I don’t.  If you want to read the entire OREGONIAN article, it’s here.  If you want pictures and more technical information, go here

However, as I say, I do have a point.  It’s coming. 

Apparently, there are approximately a bazillion possible ways these proteins might potentially fold themselves up, enough to boggle the minds of even the most advanced supercomputers.  So the scientists, out of ingenuity or desperation or both, devised a game called “Foldit. ” They recruited online teams of nonscientist computer gamers to compete to produce an accurate model of a retroviral protease. 

The scientists and their supercomputers have been trying to come up with this kind of model for more than a decade.  Guess how long the gamers took? 

Ten days. 

No, my point is not that we should recruit teams of online gamers to write our novels for us.  Although, when you think about it…  Hmm. 

But no.  I’m sticking to just the one point.  Hang in. 

The article paraphrases Firas Khatib, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on this project, as saying that human minds “have an advantage over computers because of their intuitive ability to see the potential for a delayed payoff from moves that seem like backward steps.”  Direct quote from Khatib: “Human players can see that you may have to go down this road, not doing well for a long time, but those steps are necessary if you want to get to a more correct solution.  Even the best computers and computer algorithms aren’t very good at that.” 

This, I love.  I’m a sucker for theories about what it is that makes us uniquely human, and this one was new to me.  

At long last, coming to my point: 

Sometimes you have to take backward steps.  Scuttle your favorite secondary character.  Jettison your point of view.  Rip out your beginning and find a new way in.  Dismantle the clever framework that won’t let the light shine through.  Sometimes it’s not enough just to tweak and finesse.  Sometimes backward is the best way forward, and the edifice has to come crashing down.

When you have to tear down a significant part of a labor of love, something to which you’ve devoted weeks or maybe months or maybe years of your life…it can feel like an appalling waste of time, a regression, a defeat. 

But it’s only being human.  Turns out, that’s not so bad.



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2 responses to “Backward Steps

  1. Louise Hawes

    I love this, Susan. It WAY beats the old saw, “Kill your darlings.” Because what it acknowledges is that sometimes we don’t KNOW who our darlings are, that it’s only by peeling away, stepping back from what we’ve accumulated, that we can find The Beloved who’s been waiting for us all along…

  2. terrypierce

    Interesting post, Susan. I love the notion of “Sometimes backward is the best way forward…” This reminds me of a line from a song, “Sometimes you have to close your eyes to see.” I always remind myself that I can save “deleted” material in another file, but that has such a mechanical feeling to it. This is much better, recognizing that as humans, we hate to let go of our work, but that it if we are to embrace our human-ness, that sometimes we MUST let go.

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