Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Creativity and the fence

These days I'm employed to prevent people from writing so much about something that the very essence of that thing is lost. But it turns out that I've been doing the same thing. I've been writing on and on at length about creativity, and in doing so, I've completely lost track of what it actually is.

Creation is the act of bringing into existence something that did not previously exist. Usually, you see creativity most often in the arena of problem solving. A problem is a roadblock, and a solution is a way around it. If the roadblock is a tall, electrified, barbed wire fence; and the gates on either side of it are locked; and the sides of the road are sheer vertical rock faces, then the solution is going to have to be creative. Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention.

Often, in life, you will come up on a problem like the barbed wire fence, and someone on the other side will tell you: "Hey! Slip me ten bucks and I'll give you the access card." If you swipe the access card, the electricity goes off for sixty seconds and the gates open up. It's--you got it--the easy way out. It costs you even more than the $10, though. Every time you take the easy way out, you lose a little bit of the drive and passion that once pushed you into getting shocked and cut in pursuit of your own way over the fence.

But here's something to think about: the guy who sold you the access card. How did HE get over the fence? And, more importantly, what's his motivation for keeping you from getting over the fence your own way? This blogger had a couple of ideas about that. It's fairly obvious, really. The guy on the other side stands to profit if you don't want to go through the trouble of figuring out a way over the fence. Not only that, but he retains his power over you. If, however, you make it over by yourself, you can stand there and either a) sell access cards for $5 and undercut his business or b) tell others of his nefarious scheme. Either way, his own creativity (the way he got over the fence) goes unrewarded. The major downside to this is that we never find out if your creative solution over the fence was the same as his: it's an innovation blocker.

Thankfully, creativity doesn't always have to occur in the service of a solution. Some of the most interesting stories and poems that I've read do little more than highlight and explore a problem. If I approached the fence, climbed it, and, blistered and bloody, ultimately refused the indignity of paying for the access card, leaving my body to die a slow and painful death on my side of the fence, that could be an excellent story. But there is little to no reward in life for someone who merely reiterates a problem, even if it's done in an interesting way. That's one reason why it's so hard to write a good, lasting story. You have to balance your self-indulgent exploration with the value to society that you might be able to offer.

Fiction writers: how do you balance your thoughtful self-indulgence with the value you want to present to society? How do you find your big picture issues? Do you start with issues and come to the story, or does the story ultimately dictate its own issues?

I find that getting shocked and bloodied trying to find my own way over the fence is sometimes its own reward, but sometimes I'm curious about the other side.


Richard Laurence Baron said...

I suppose I should be careful what I wish for – you raise so many enjoyable questions. Still, Melanie, I’d ask about the guy selling the access cards. (Who IS that guy?)

To scramble the metaphor even more: “Teach a man to climb that fence and he’ll have access for the rest of his life.” But…what if getting inside this particular fence isn’t worth the climb? Why not just tender the access fee and pass through the barrier? Sometimes, capital is more disposable than time.

That way, I could satisfy my curiosity about the other side of the fence without “getting shocked and bloodied.” Or is all this too flip? Ta…

Melanie said...

Hi Richard, thanks for coming by and commenting. In my metaphor, I am assuming that writers are the ones who desperately want to see the other side of the fence. We don't know what's there: it may not even be worth the $10 we could pay the guy to gain access. But going the easy way doesn't allow for creative thinking, and may even stem future creative thought. You get to the other side, but at what cost? If you think about it that way, if the writer doesn't at least try to get over to the other side on his or her own steam, coming out to the fence at all was an exercise in futility.

I think my questions were really trying to get at the riskiness of putting oneself out there when the rewards might be more punishing than rewards should be.