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creativity


When we think of creativity in a general sense, we tend to imagine something along the lines of the image above, Jackson Pollock in full swing, freezing jazz on a canvas with paint. A sculptor, chipping away on a block of Carrara marble. A composer, tickling the ivories, one way or another. A writer, scratching marks on a piece of paper, or frowning at the keyboard, conjuring ghosts.

In other words, creativity, so goes the common mindset, is the act of creating something within a rather narrowly defined field of art – music, litterature, painting, sculpture, film etc. By defining it within a context of art – usually viewed as outside or apart from daily, quotidian life – we can contain it and grasp it and wrap our minds around it – and keep it where it belongs – apart.

But really, if you think about it, creativity can be applied to any human endeavor. It is, all things being equal, what makes us uniquely human – we bring into existence what was not there before – a question, an answer, a view or a perspective that is both personal and transpersonal – personal to the artist as expressing an individual opinion, and transpersonal in that other people can relate – or not – to that question or opinion, and that depends on whether or not the artist has touched the viewer in some receptive spot.

However, I think that standardised view of creativity and creator is, to put it mildly, limiting. It implies that creativity is by definition artistic, which again means that that it exists in some vacuum of a sacred, arcane vault of infinite inspiration accessible only to those lucky few who have the key to open it – the ability to create.

So artists who are able to key into the zeitgeist of any given moment in time are lionized as prophets and saints and voices of a generation and a time, and meanwhile, billions of people, everywhere on Earth, are being creative every moment of their lives, and they never know it.

Anyone can be creative. Anyone at all.

Many of us create life, for instance. We bring into being a composite of two people, who contains equal parts of both and yet is the sum entire of neither of them. That helpless little bundle of human potential called a baby is all his or her own from conception onwards, and from the moment of birth, parents are forced to be creative in taming the savage beast that emerges in their progeny at around age 2, and to keep on being creative in the way they raise their child. With any luck, the parents might – just – survive the experience.

Engineers, supposedly the most aesthetically challenged species of vocation known to humanity, are forced to be creative in their ways to solve problems of construction. It was, after all, an engineer that created an epic poem in wrought iron – the Eiffel tower. It was also engineers – armies of them, in fact – that built the roads of the Roman Empire, roads bringing trade, people and ideas.

Scientists, another group not generally considered creative in the usual sense of the word, are often forced to think “outside the box” in solving complex problems. These days, those problems were usually created by other scientists, who wanted to know what would happen if they applied a hypothesis to the real world – a creative act.

A housewife setting a bouquet of flowers on a table is being creative – by bringing a spot of beauty to a place which the moment before was just an empty expanse of wood. She can create a memory for her family, by baking that birthday cake for a child’s birthday that the child will remember long afterward as being – that cake, that moment, that instant of happiness and that realization of love in an edible form.

A friend of mine, a ferocious music fanatic, was brainwashed all his life into thinking that the only success that matters is the kind you put in the bank, an entirely alien concept to him. He spends most of his spare time in that infinite vault of endless inspiration, and his music collection gets him there, instantly, by taking him away from his limitations and the bittersweet taint of failure he smacks himself over the head with. Yet sometimes, I’ve caught him unaware, applying his inherent creativity to his view of the world he lives in.

Classical musicians, who after all play music for a living, may not think of themselves as being creative – all they do, so the thinking goes, is interpret the notes written by someone else – the composer – and read by yet another – the conductor. Yet, somewhere in that empty void between note, composer, and the irascible ego of the conductor, musicians have to put their particular stamp of “I played this!”, they have to define their own way of saying “con affetto” – with affect, with feeling – not the composer’s, not the conductor’s – but their own. That sound, that vibrato, that touch of soul is what defines that musician – and whether we as an audience realize it or not, swooning with bliss over, say, some Mozart concerto, we take it home with us and carry it into our days, made just that much brighter by the emotion we found in a musician’s style, or collectively in an orchestra’s.

Creativity, as I define it, is anything that makes us stop up, see, listen, watch and pay attention – to a thing, a phrase, a sound, a feeling, that wasn’t there a minute before. It can be art, it can be a mundane act of kindness, or a discovery that opens you and frees you.

A discovery that the world as you know it is bigger than you think, more complex than you know, more infinite than you believed it could be. It is an urge to put your own unique stamp on the world you live in – to say you lived, you saw, you thought, you did.

Lots of humans, since the beginning, did. The Paleolithic artist, scrawling ochre on a cave wall, the Roman engineer, creating a road across the Alps, the monk, creating an ode to the divine in a windswept monastery on the edge of the world, the alchemist, trying to transmute matter, or the parent, imprinting the child with a heritage that child will keep all his life, the writer, struggling to write a book, the frustrated artist, looking for a voice to articulate the void – they all did. They do.

Why don’t you?


Everyone’s a critic, they say. We all have opinions, and all of them stink! Critics are failed creatives who can’t, who speak cant because they can, who pan the sweat and efforts of creatives in every field to make them pay because – they can’t create themselves.

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see that someone created a snowman of – a boxer dog, or Batman, I’m not entirely sure which. But let’s just say it’s a boxer. A boxer with a very low opinion – so it looks from the human side of the fence perspective – of that snowman. Whoever knew that art critics had four legs?

But we all know what we like, which might or might not be what the rest of the world likes. Opinions are powerful entities. When it comes to books, or writing, there’s no end of them. Some writers I love for their stories, despite the fact that they’re considered mass-market, simply because they sell books by the truckload. Some others I can’t even read, even if they’re on the NY Times bestseller list.

I have my own opinions (by the truckloads), and my own gut instincts when it comes to good or bad writing. It follows, therefore, that when I got to where I thought I wasn’t too terrible, after two drafts of the Effing Book, I had to find out my own limits for literary masochism. In other words, it was time to – get spanked, before an editor or an agent did it for me.

Unlike in S&M, however, there would be no warm-ups first. No ping-pong paddles or feather dusters, and the writer even supplies his or her own handcuffs. Not only that, the writer would voluntarily line up the cases of rotten eggs and tomatoes, tie him or herself to the stake and – beg to be slammed.

I joined an online writing community. Hit me, I can take it!

This particular version works quite simply. You review other people, and they, in turn, review you. You get credits for the reviews you complete, and those credits are used to open up the reviews you get from others. Even teenagers can figure that out.

With a free membership, and a great deal of exposure, this was – and still is – a popular site. You can find – and review – nearly every literary genre you can think of, and quite a few you never would.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is the inordinate amount of truly horrible writing you often have to plow through to earn your credits. Writers who can’t spell, who could care less about grammar or punctuation – and that’s just for starters. Copper Canyon-sized plotholes, cartoon characterizations, outrageous premises – and that’s just the beginning.

I began, a few months in, to almost pity the poor junior editors who have to make their way through the slush piles every month.

What nearly did me in, however, was having to be constructive. Well, that’s fair enough. I would ask the same. But as a fiction writer, I was taxing even my rather spectacular abilities at bs in trying to come up with new and excruciatingly polite ways to say: “You suck!”

Luckily for my sanity, not everyone did. There were many pearls to be found if you dug for them in the pigsty of aspiring writers, and I’m happy to say that I learned a lot from the ones who rearranged my own mental furniture and expanded my horizons. I read some truly great stories, and I’ve made some great online friends along the way. I’m grateful. Really I am.

But – not everyone can take constructive criticism, be it ever so eloquently stated. Writing is a personal matter, and no matter how hard you try not to, aspects of yourself, your life and your soul with inevitably creep in like so much silent fog before you know it. So, when a reviewer states “you need to correct some grammatical issues”, there will always, but always be that one hypersensitive soul who feels hit right in their solar plexus of self – “whaddaya meen, I dunno spelin an grammer? Well then, fuck YOU an the horse you rode in on”. or words to that effect.

Here we are, all we would-be literary critics, reviewers and writers, begging to be abused in a safe and monitored forum. Which means that when we get it, we can either shrug it off, take it to heart and try to learn from it, or react as if our person were being attacked instead of our prose.

What makes no sense at all is that some of us, those of us who are arrogant enough and presumptuous enough, really do believe we’re good enough writers to get published with only a slight spit and polish. We’re well aware that all this critique will be nothing compared to what we’ll be feeling once the rejection letters start pouring in, or, if we jump that hurdle, just how hard an editor will lay into us if they think we’re not up to certain standards.

Yes, I’m one of the arrogant ones. I’m also a member who gets specific requests for reviews because I do try to be both polite and constructive, and my rating as a reviewer is likewise very high. So I guess I must be doing something right.

There I was, Sunday morning, just bored enough to log in to my masochistic thrill. I had a new review, and I wanted to read it. Give, and you shall receive.

So, I reviewed someone, someone I don’t know from Adam, and along the way, I pointed out spelling errors, grammatical whoppers and a few unintentional content whoppers. I never knew there were such things as Civil War recreator Calvary boots. That made me want to ask if these were what Jesus was wearing when he was nailed to the cross. I refrained by the skin of my teeth.

I also pointed out things like potential, added what I liked and why, and suggested – simply because not everyone knows – a style manual and a dictionary, as well as a spell checker. I did not mean to be arrogant or to come across as flippant, but that was precisely how my review was interpreted.

That would-be writer felt attacked where it hurt the most, I guess, even if that wasn’t my intention. She promptly chewed me a new one with titanium teeth, by reviewing me.

I wrote a birthday pastiche in January to celebrate one of my favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. It was written one boring night when the Muse decided to call while I was wrestling with the idea, and I was maybe a bit too proud of it, so I posted it for critique. You’ll find it here, if you’re curious.

See? I told you I was a masochist!

This was what that poster chose to review. Did she, ever! I quote:

You, the shadow, address the readers as if no one ever got Edgar Allen Poe, if this is who you are writing about, you might refrain from speaking for the masses. You could fix this by saying that some failed to undersand. This work is presumptious and not a good picture of Mr. Poe if this is who you are writing about.I have read his autobiography and he only went downhill near the end of his life. Funny, how people only concentrate in the worst side of someone. You have some nice images in this work. It is very poetic in places. However, the bad news is that You have made many grammatical errors. I suggest you take those books you insisted i read on grammar and read them yourself.

O….K…

Now, if I know any writer and his works like the back of my hand, it’s Poe. When I get obsessive, it’s total OCD. He never did write an autobiography. He struggled to make a decent living as a writer all his short life. He was lauded as a critic, but otherwise – at least in the US and in his own day – ridiculed and belittled. It took the Europeans – and especially the French – to restore his literary standing in his own country, and that didn’t happen until after his premature and mysterious death, all of it reflected in my little pastiche.

It took me – the Hit Me I Can Take It writer – the better part of an afternoon to simmer down. Not because I couldn’t handle being shown the errors of my prose, but because this reviewer claimed I got my facts wrong, my grammar wrong, and that I overused the passive voice, a literary device much used by Victorian-era writers, and even by Poe, and therefore by me in my little pastiche.

Well, not everyone likes 19th-century prose, or is even familiar with the phrasing and grammar that was used then. Fair enough. But there’s no need to get all – personal about it, is there?

The fact is – everyone can learn to communicate. Everyone can learn to write. I do believe, though, that not everyone can tell stories other people might want to immerse themselves in, and I also believe that good writing – however you do it – will out, sooner or later. Finally, I believe that I am one of those with a certain minimum of talent and a minuscule style I can call my own.

I know as well that not everyone will agree!

Different strokes, different folks.

I saved her review. I intend to frame it and hang it up in all its glory, right where it deserves: my bathroom. It’s always nice, to be humbled with your pants down around your ankles.

It puts everything I write into a whole new perspective.

Because anyone can see here that I totally – suck! 😉

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It’s damned hard to concentrate on anything so ephemeral as a book when outside your windows, Nature is exploding, full of flowers and scents and greenery. All I want to do is lie on my back in the grass, bare toes buried in the daisies and the dandelions, and look for animals in the clouds with Damien, except there are no clouds at all. The sky is a limitless blue, the grass is the retina-burning green of the best emeralds, and the cherry trees are blooming. As Damien said yesterday: “It’s raining flowers, Mommy.”

So it is. It’s raining flowers. Hurray, hurray, the First of May, outdoors – never mind.

May, and flowers, and cherry trees are all distractions from my current mental toothache, or headache. For a long time, I have suffered a bad case of writer’s block. Not here, and not on my other blog. Blogs are easy – the avoidance actions, to use a psychological term, of would-be writers who can’t write the Important Stuff, the stuff they – vainly, for the most part – think will make them Rich and Famous, or at least rich. I have two rules when I set out to write either of the two blogs I own – first, that it is extemporal. I have one idea when I start, and I have none at all as to how I finish. It’s just a question of seeing where my words will take me at that particular moment. There’s no rehearsal, I don’t write it in my head beforehand, I just – go, and let the whole unholy mess speak for itself. The other rule is that no blog can take more than two hours to write. The one exception – also found here – was a birthday tribute that ended up reading like a besotted funeral eulogy for someone who’s still alive, only because it was cold, raining, and Damien decided to let me suffer for it by constant interruption whenever I located a train of thought. Spelling mistakes, bad sentences and typos are corrected, but other than that, it’s the Standup School of Writing.

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to improvise, ever since I prepared for my graduation by wallowing in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, rather than Thucydides, Plato and Aristophanes, and I still managed to get a B in my final oral Greek exam.

Smoke and mirrors and an overlarge vocabulary will get you nearly everywhere. There’s a lot to be said for the Act As If philosophy.

Then, there’s that Other Thing. The Important Stuff. The Potentially Rich and Famous Stuff. The stuff that gives me heart palpitations, and performance anxiety, and has me staring at my beloved Macbook for hours wishing someone would please shoot me, now.

For the past seven years, I have been writing a book with the working title “The Effing Book”. For almost two of those years, I was unable to write because I had a baby in the interim, so instead, with the help of a friendly fellow Romanophile PhD student with a large book collection, I did an enormous amount of research on all the facts I got so wrong the first – two – times around.

I called it “The Effing Book”, as in “When ARE you going to finish that (insert expletive) book?” It’s a historical novel set in the early third century in Roman Britain and in pre-Christian Ireland, so there are certain limitations and rules to observe. My facts – such as they are – have to be true to the time, and even more important, the mindset of 1800 years ago. It’s harder than you think, to leave the 21st century behind. Which is partly the reason why I do it to begin with. Imagine a world – with no pollution, no cars, no electricity, no Internet, no TV. You might think that things were simpler then, and in some respects, they were. In all that matters, however, people are people regardless of what time they live in, and so, they screw up their lives and the lives of others every bit as badly as anyone does today.
Nevertheless, I plowed through. I recreated the story to fit the proper historical context, changed things around, introduced a whole new cast of characters and a better class of villain. I started over, if not entirely from scratch, two years ago, and in that time, I also worked at several demanding full-time jobs with strange hours, raised a little boy from toddler terror to preschooler poet – “it’s raining flowers!” – and kept him from drowning one cat in the toilet or microwaving the other one. I also listened to an awful lot of Norse metal, an unhealthy amount of Brooklyn ditto, and a smattering of Irish sean nos folk music as I wrote. I maintained the Buttkicker’s internet addiction and our marriage. And – I wrote. Four chapters.

Four chapters in two years. Admit it – you’re underwhelmed with admiration. They are, if I say so myself, long chapters, a total of some 300+ pages in manuscript. Their facts are 150% accurate – when it comes to historical detail, I have absolute OCD. They are, for the most part, ready for publication, and I put the first three chapters to the test. I became a member of an online writing critique website, and put up different scenes, out of order, for critique.

I braced myself for the worst, and was surprised by what I got. My reviews ran the gamut from “Harry Potter ripoff” (one smartaleck 13-year-old) to “one of the best things I’ve read here so far”. Some of those people I critiqued myself, and in the process, we became friends with a particular kind of disease – The Writing Itch. Friends, that is, with the right to tear into each other’s prose, but luckily, we’re all so fantabulously talented – if unpublished – we rarely have to.

When I got hit by the “wtf happens next” blues, the Buttkicker sprang into action. We would camp out on our respective dilapidated sofas and hash out the storyline. From the very beginning, he’s been as big a part of this as I have – rooting from the sidelines, graciously accepting “I’m writing tonight”, and telling me, in exceedingly plain English, when I suck, and why, and how it might be improved. He has vetoed some ideas and introduced other ones, but he has emphatically not been the one who sits there in front of the screen sweating bullets to achieve perfect prose. It’s all my party, and I can cry if I want to. When a chapter is done, he lies down, eyes closed, and I read it through aloud, sometimes to raves, sometimes not.

Then, wouldn’t you know, I realized something – that I wasn’t writing – enough. Or else that I was writing too – disciplined, too hamstrung by history. I needed an outlet for all my 21st century fits of pique, or else just my fits.

I created this blog, and I let rip.

Meanwhile, every other day or so, I would open up The Effing Book, and stare blankly at the screen and the flashing cursor. Nope, it ain’t happening, not today. Didn’t happen yesterday, either. Not bloody likely tomorrow. I want to browse Net A Porter, instead, badly, and drool over Matthew Williamson, not wrangle with siblings who detest each other to a fratricidal extent or Irish kings being browbeaten by their druids, or deal with total teenaged sexual humiliation. And meanwhile, your protagonist is literally languishing in a fishing boat on the Irish sea, and will be nearly dead in about eighteen hours.

Think about it – how in Hades DO you manage to pull a story – any story – out of the ether and onto paper, and into books?
You do it by sacrificing – family time, spouse time, friend time. You get used to having hairy legs and bushy eyebrows. Your clean clothes can fester in the dryer for – oh, the horror – 12 hours! Women your age meet for coffee and discuss the delights of living without their kids, whereas I left that rather late, deal with a four-year-old, and nitpick my characters, but not nearly so much as I nitpick my prose. I think I’d gladly kill for a grandparent nearby, but alas, the ones that live are 6000 miles away and I am an orphan now.

Tant pis, as the French say.

Mainly, I suspect it boils down to a bad case of performance anxiety. I’m conjuring up ghosts, the ghosts of an age long since past, and in some cases, those ghosts are real enough. I’m conjuring ghosts from cobwebs and book dust through a long, dark tunnel called “history”.

There’s the rub. Now, if I could forget about the “his” part and just settle for the story, I might go somewhere, instead of getting stuck in the flypaper of my own time.

Aha! An idea! So, OK. Tie the kid to a beanbag. Gag the buttkicker. Feed the cats. Here goes.

“Remind me to kill you at my earliest opportunity.”
“Certainly. If you don’t get distracted and I kill you first.”
“You wish, brother.”
“Ah, Antoninus. You have no idea how much!”

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One dark and stormy night, when lightning and thunder were battling it out for supremacy at the height of the summer storm season in Florida, I was – terminally bored. Lethally bored. Existential ennui does not even begin to cover it. No internet, no TV, no DVD player, and no books available I hadn’t already read at least four times before. Going for a walk was naturally out of the question – it was raining – pelting, more like – not cats and dogs, or even frogs, but armadillos outside. There was no distraction available, since the Resident Buttkicker was working late. Our two cats, normally far more fun than any TV sitcom, were parked out on our screened-in porch watching the rain. The house was spotless, even the bathroom. And the closets.

Such a state, any creative willl tell you, can do one of two things. You will either go ever-so slightly crazy trying to pass the time, or you will start something, no matter how bad, just to keep yourself from vaulting over a cliff.

So, I started writing a little story. At the time, I had no corrosive literary ambitions whatsoever. I was just trying to stay semi-sane. And it worked, Within half an hour, I was no longer bored. Within two days, I had 10 pages. Within a week, I had an entire Iron Age Irish tribe yelling simultaneously in my head. If you’ve ever met an Irishman or -woman, you will know that they are loquacious creatures. None of them have shut up since, although they did go suspiciously quiet around the time Damien the Sequel arrived.

By the time I headed back for the desert Southwest, I had seventy pages of a novel buried on the hard drive of a third-hand PowerMac. I had also managed to contract an itch I could not stop scratching. That itch is now in its seventh year, and the novel is in its third rewrite, the one that looks good enough, and credible enough, to eventually land on a bookshelf near you. Or any available MP3-player, I’m open to possibilities.

Along the path from there to here, I learned a few things. No matter how good you think you are, you will suck as a writer until you find that great Holy Grail of all writing – your voice. No matter how good you think you are, you will always suck as a writer if you believe you can’t keep improving. And no matter how bad you know you are, it’s never a bad thing to know spelling and grammar. And last but not least, even if you do write to escape the maelstrom of the 21st century into the vortex of the third century AD, your own life and the events in it will, willingly or otherwise, insinuate itself into your story. Often in ways you don’t expect. People you know will become characters, and so they will surprise you in several dimensions. People you don’t know personally might even become two separate characters, one major player in your story, and one minor.

You know that saying – “don’t get mad, get even?” Should anyone piss you off, in they go, to suffer the torment of uncaring fate, or to suffer in other ways cooked up by your diabolical imagination. Meanwhile, the process of torturing your nemesis can be wonderfully cathartic! And look, Ma – no consequences!

Should you ever meet someone who claims to be a writer, beware. You never know where you might end up – tied to the railroad tracks, buried alive, or ritually murdered and thrown into an Irish bog.

Oh, the possibilities!

The bad news is, if you think it’s tough being married, try writing a novel. And holding down a day job. And maintaining a household. And motherhood. Oh yes, and you’re married, too. To someone who just happens to think you’re going to be the hottest ticket in publishing history, so “why aren’t you writing?”

Now you know why I call him the Resident Buttkicker.

The bad news is, you will never, never, ever be Inspired with a capital I. You will be exhausted after a long day, you will be bored to tears with your story and your irascible characters who are always misbehaving behind your back, you will be sitting in front of your computer waiting, or even wishing lightning would strike you dead, for that visit by the Muse, and it just ain’t happening. Not tonight, not this month. Not, most likely, ever.

The only thing you can do is sit there. Type a sentence. Type the next one.

And long for the day when all you’ll be typing is “The End”.

Knowing full well, that once that turkey is sent out into the world, you will be sitting there, lethally bored. Suddenly, you’ll propel yourself to your laptop and begin typing:

“It was a dark and stormy night”.