January 15, 2007

Originality and Creativity Considered, Briefly

Originality, as we humans know it, is a myth. Correlated with originality is creativity. To be original, someone must create. To be creative, someone must be original.

Short of being the deities of deities, creator of all things created, I am created. Created things cannot be creative.

We use the terms differently than they really mean. Let's explore the question.

To say I want to be original is practically blasphemous. Do I want that awesome power over all things created? In my most heinous hour, I skirt close to this passion, but, luckily, at that same hour, I am as far from creativity as could be.

What is creativity, in the artistic, less blasphemic sense? Logic mixed with observation.

A chess player cannot be creative. He or she has everything, ever possibility already available and evident. Determining the best move is not about creativity, but about recognizing the course of action that is likely to follow with a given move. The best player, say, Bobby Fischer in his prime, was never creative. He merely did what he was supposed to do more effectively than his opponent.

A problem exists. What solution is the best? First, the solver recognizes the options. The best solvers do so quickly and comprehensively, while simultaneously screening out less effective solutions.

A writer faces problems with each syllable. A blank page is his first problem. The story, the article, the poem all presume a similar question. The English language writer starts with 26 letters and roughly the same vocabulary as his contemporaries in his genre. Somehow, one writer will combine those letters in such a way that solves the problem better than another.

A writer of a poem asks, "What mood do I want to leave the reader in?" or "What do I want the reader to be inspired to do?" and related questions. Issues regarding line break, punctuation, stanza, meter, and length all become important.

The writer is a combiner, not a creator. He combines what already exists. The combination may not have existed before, but it was logically a possibility. The writer drew from experience and observation, logically anticipating the impact a certain combination of letters might have on the reader. The writer will not anticipate ever reaction, and this becomes the subject of great debate by literary critics. Great writers are not accidental, however, and control much of what the reader comes to understand.

The most 'creative' is the most observant. The great chess player sees each piece, each place on the board. Poor players see all of this as well, but what the great player observes are combinations. If he does this, then his opponent will do that, and so on, until the great player feels satisfied the best option is just that, the best option. He will have many options. Some will be bad, good, even very good. Only one is best.

In chess, success is plain. The player either wins or loses. He might find a moral victory in drawing against an opponent deemed better, but the fact is, he did not win. Whatever encouragement he finds in a loss or draw is fine, but he did not win. The player knows whether or not his moves were great (or good enough) when the game concludes.

The writer has no pleasure of victory the way a chess player does. A wise writer knows there is more to a book's success than good writing, and many of those things he has no control over. Marketing, PR, a snazzy website. It can make a difference if the writer is handsome or beautiful, or has a good presence when speaking publicly. Ugly women who speak with an annoying nasal inflection will have a harder time talking about their book on Oprah than a beauty queen with the speaking skills of a practiced lawyer. It might not be 'right' but that reality all writers must contend with if they hope to become rich on a book's sales.

When the chess player plays, he is re-combining, moving pieces under prescribed rules. The pawn moves up one or two places, depending on of it has moved previously, or straight forward or diagonally, depending on whether or not it is attacking the opponent’s piece. The rules of the game are absolute, and the chess player is forced to play within that context.

The writer has no rules at first glance. Still, if he intends to cause the reader to react a certain way, he is subservient to his reader. Readers expect a sonnet not to start like a sonnet but end like a haiku. The writer might choose that path, but the conventions for poetic forms are strong. E. E. Cummings appeared to refuse to follow conventions regarding punctuation, but the reality is far different. He abided by them completely. If he had not, his poetry would be reduced to anarchic scribbling. Readers who understand the depth of possibilities within punctuation appreciative his deft use of it.

Was Cummings' creative? No. He recombined. He combined. He moved the pieces around within the meta-conventions of the English language, just as Shakespeare did. His style was previously not known to readers, and can be difficult to deduce into meaning, but Cummings did not create anything. He observed the possibilities, and chose what he considered the best solution.

What is the best solution in writing? One that does the intended job. Anything less is failure, as far as that goal is concerned. Sloppy shots, like in pool, happen, but, like in pool, they most often do not count. A writer can discover some great turn of phrase by accident, but great writers find the phrases through purposed searches into options. The great writer might find that great phrase by accident, like a guitarist picking on his guitar late at night, but, like that guitarist, knows something good when he hears it.

After all, there's nothing new under the sun.

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