Writing and Creativity

I chanced upon another individual’s blog where they had attempted a writing exercise, the point of which was to take a romantic (I assume an English romanticism literary style) and reduce it into a modernist literary style, thus producing an reductio ad absurdum.  i supposed it worked as contemplated but I commented that the writing itself was a sheer act of boredom and that individual took great offense.  Still, if a piece of writing is boring it is boring and no great amount of academic authority will lessen that effect.  Of course that is the problem with so many writing programs, master of fine art degree programs, writer in residence programs, these things are nice but all the professors and all the writers in residence cannot teach you anything about creativity or how to write so that others will read your works.  Oh sure, they can play the editor and suggest changes but that is always after the fact and what did you learn form those changes?  You see, from the writing comes the criticism, not the other way round.  Educational establishments have it all backwards, education does not come from them, it comes from your own efforts to learn.  Gosh, does that sound arrogant?  I certainly hope so.

So let us talk about creativity.  First, no one person or group of persons can teach you how to be creative.  It can’t be done in your lifetime.  Being creative is, well, being creative.  Yes, that is a circular argument and I am guilty as charged.  But this little truism is, unfortunately, true.  I remember when the hobby shops had what we use to call paint by number kits.  You would be sold a box with the stiff canvas cardboard, a couple of brushes, and a number of small containers of colored oil paints.  The canvas was printed with outlined areas an numbers inside each area that corresponded to the number on a particular container of colored oil paint.  Your job was to take a brush and daub a bit of paint from the corresponding oil paint onto the area numbered on that container.  If you chose a kit well, your efforts might have that certain impressionist look and give your efforts some artistic merit.  Did you at any time display the least amount of creativity in creating that monstrosity of a painting?  Of course not, it was all done for you.  Hell, a computer controlled robot could have done it better and it still would not have been an act of creativity.  But what if you daubed colors where you thought most appropriate or where you fancied they ought to go?  Ah, then for good or bad, you displayed some creativity.  Your color scheme may have been outlandish, mismatched, the work of insane monkeys, etc, but it was different and it was creative.

Are you starting to follow me here?  The manner in which you decorate your house may be the most tasteless and baseless design and color palette, but it is your design and your attempt at color design.  Ask a child to make up a story and they sit there and whine about how they can’t do it.  But if one of them starts and tells some story then the other start to believe that they can do just as well, even if they are worse at the exercise.  And if we get them to practice and show them different stock phrases to use, such as once upon a time then they will use those stock phrases as templates for other phrases.  Then pretty soon their stories are full of stock phrases of their own design.  Creativity occurs, what a concept.  And as they learn to bring a time frame into their story then they might start, A long time ago…or last Christmas at this time.  You see, we learn in terms of patterns and some of us are better at recognizing some patterns better than others.  So perhaps we may seem to be a little more creative in one area simply because that area is more valued.  Wow, he’s a great lover.  Yes, but he tells a really lousy story.

Writing is story telling.  I remember an English professor of mine, he was an senior editor at McGraw-Hill, telling us one of his standard jokes about creativity and writing.  A man walks into a hotel where there is a convention going on.  He sees from the posters that it is a convention of joke tellers.  So he steps inside the room and stands against the wall next to several other men.  At the podium a woman is standing and says, “Number seven”, and the audience laughs quite heartily.  When all have quieted down she speaks another number and again, the laughter spreads through the crowd.  Our man is quite perplexed and he asks one of the men why is everyone laughing when a number is mentioned.  The gentleman replies that in order to save time all the jokes have been memorized according to number.  So anyone wishing to tell a joke need only speak the number.  Then he say, “Why don’t you have a try?”  So our man goes up to the podium and turns to the audience.  “Sixteen”, hes says quite boldly.  He is met with subdued silence.  “Twenty eight”, says he as he attempts to win a laugh.  This time the stares are quite hostile.  So he walks back to the place where the gentleman is leaning against the wall.  “I though you said that all I had to do was mention a number and everyone would laugh.”  The gentleman looked at him and said, “Maybe it the way you told the joke that is at fault.”

Writing fiction, and nonfiction, for that matter, is in the way we tell a story.  A joke is a story just as any child’s fairy tale.  And if you have ever told or read that story book to a four or five year old child and you do not say it exactly they way they remember it from night to night, you will catch hell from them.  “Daddy!  You’re not telling it right!  That’s not the way Mommy tells it!  Do it right, Daddy!”  I think daddies are the only ones who are willing to experiment with the bedtime story.  Unfortunately my daughter wasn’t.  Does that mean that there is only one way to tell the story?  Oh, good god, no, we have so many ways that no one way is absolutely right.  Some are better than others, though, while some are a lost worse.  How many times have you heard the same basic joke told several different ways?  How funny it was at the time was dependent on the audience.  Creativity is about your reference point combined with the various reference points of your audience.  If those point align or mesh and how well they mesh is dependent on what those points of reference have in common.  If you write a story about cowboys and space aliens your audience mat not include too many fans of western literature nor fands of science fiction literature.  Your story may seem either too sluggish or too fast.  It ma appear too old fashion and too modern to suit the settings.  Maybe the high plains of saturn aren’t what evokes the character of the old west in the minds of others.

On the other hand, we can see that in the film and novel, 2001 A Space Odyssey and the film Westworld the glitch of a vast computer system can be the cause of grave concern and even death.  One story takes place in outer space in the future (okay, so 2001 was a few years ago, but it was a seventies film) while the other takes place in a themepark in the 1970s LA area.  And if we drag in the book and film from 1964, Failsafe we have the same theme being explored.  How many other books and films have used computer glitches as the vehicle for the plot development?  There are only so many stories and what we see and read tend to be variations on a theme.  Some are good and some not so good, it’s all in how you tell the story.  Your professor can’t tell it for you, otherwise he would write the book and get all the money.  Those who can write write, those who can’t teach writing.  So rule number one about creativity.  Only you can be creative for yourself.  No one can do it for you.  What does it take to be creative?  Play with the story line, see the pattern a little differently.  Play the what if game.  What if Rhett Butler had married Scarlet when she was a teenager?  Would she have still pined for Ashley?  What if she has married Ashley, would Ashley have come back alive?  What if Margret Mitchel’s husband had sold Pepsi or Ron Rico?  What if Harry Potter lived in China?  Can we imagine Dumbledore dancing to Everybody was kung fu fighting?  Instead of Jack climbing the beanstalk into the sky, what if he had to crawl down a small cave into the ground and do battle with a midget?  Ah, because Jank would be considered a bully if he picked on someone smaller than himself.

Oh, wait, there really are some rules after all.  So our creativeness needs a certain moral boundary that we cross only at our peril and only if it serves a larger moral purpose.  You see, society has rules and all out writing and oral stories are normally bounded by them.  Wow, the professor never told me about that.  Society has expectations about behaviors.  Ah, so we have a chance to write about those expectations and when they are not met.  Ok, so maybe you are getting some ideas and can start to see the patterns emerge.  This is what creativity is about, examining the patterns and looking for the holes, the chinks in its armor, the plates that do not fit tightly together.  We write about morality, not being moral.  We question our assumptions, we question our motives, we even question ourselves. This is how we become creative when we write.  I don’t care how much bullshit literary criticism you know and understand, it ain’t real life.  You write from real life.  I never read an author who ever wrote a war novel that was believable who didn’t spend considerable time hugging the ground while listening to men cry for their mothers while they died.  If you haven’t been there then you don’t own those experiences and what you write rings out false.  You can’t fake creativity and your can’t fake real life experience.

So back to the beginning.  Creativity cannot be taught.  It is a real experience that only you can experience.  We aren’t Mormons, we cannot live vicariously through the experiences of others.  My being baptized for you when you are dead and can neither accept the faith nor feel the holy spirit for your self will never make you baptise in any sense of experience.  Sorry about that, Brigham Young and John Smith.  Creativity is about the reality of the experience.  If you want it, then find a way to change your perceptions to the point where it can happen for you.  I can’t tell you any more than that.  You create it by playing with the patterns, by changing perspectives.  And most of the time you will need to do it more than once or twice.  It took Thomas Edison four thousand tries to get the filament for the light bulb right.  His creativity was in thinking that the filament composition mattered, proving that idea right took a bit longer.  Do you start to understand what its all about?

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