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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On Creativity

So we writers talk a lot about writing, and some will have a lot to say on story-telling as a craft, but we often overlook the organic infrastructure of ideas. Things like creativity come across as so subjective that no one could possibly determine whether or not something is creative.

If you've read my previous post, then you already know how I feel about the academic definition of "creative."

Often, something is considered creative on college campuses (campusi?) if it:

1) Is 100% original and experimental: If it isn't revolutionary, then it isn't art.
2) Has a political message: It doesn't matter if the art piece or writing has no skillful technique whatsoever, as long as it proclaims virtue, diversity, tolerance, and any other PC thing your mind can concatenate with mainstream movements. That painting doesn't have to look nice in order to be a masterpiece, as long as the painter explains that the haphazard blobs of paint symbolize the oppression of women and minorities, and therefore being critical of the painting is synonymous with oppressing marginalized groups.
3) Has a deep and profound message: i.e., "capitalism is bad" or "cellphones are bad."
4) Has no clear cut meaning: "But Dylan, it DOES have a meaning! It proclaims virtue and disavows capitalism!" Still a bit ambiguous, but fair enough.

But in all seriousness, what does make something creative? The thing is that creativity has so many forms, and the simple act of discovering new ways to implement creative concepts is a type of creativity in and of itself.

For writing, creativity has a seemingly endless number of possible forms. Everything from using words that reflect the theme or feeling of a situation, to concocting new story ideas, to writing common tropes in new and interesting ways. The beauty of creativity is that it isn't nearly as limited as people think.

You see, dear reader, many people sit back and say, "There aren't any ideas that haven't been done already."


There's millions of ideas waiting to be discovered. If someone insists that they shouldn't endeavor a creative undertaking because "everything has already been done," that says more about the person's imagination than it does about society's shortage of ideas.

In the age of technology, we're bombarded with an incredible amount of information on a daily basis. It's only natural with our ridiculous information-overload (click here to learn more about that, it's an amazing blog) that we'd be convinced everything has been done.

In regards to that, there are still new ideas that have never been used before, and not only that, but anything that has been done can easily be done differently.

Let's use vampires as an example.

Regardless of whether you're an avid reader or not, it's safe to say that vampires are a completely overdone trope that could use a break for a while.

But let's see how three different stories use them differently.

First, we have shitty vampire romances like Twilight. Twilight has no intention of staying true to tale (many people would declare that as fantasy, nothing has to be realistic, but more on why that's wrong later); rather the story's main purpose is pure wish fulfillment, and the story is supposed to garner a fan base of insecure young girls who want a supernatural creature (an obvious metaphor for a spectacular person who would otherwise be out of their league) to find them attractive.

Now let's compare that to the anime OVA adaption of Hellsing.

In Hellsing Ultimate, vampires have a hierarchy of power and intelligence. Most vampires are just ghouls who aimlessly wonder around like zombies, biting and infecting others. Some have spectacular powers that they use to slaughter hundreds of people, and then there's the alpha vampire Alucard, who is perhaps the most badass anti-hero to ever exist in a fictional setting.

Essentially, Alucard is a vampire elite who specializes in killing other vampires. With his incredible regenerative powers and two pistols loaded with silver bullets, he ruthlessly hunts down and kills any supernatural creature that his boss tells him to, and will kill anyone who gets in his way. I dare you to watch this and try to say that it's anything like Twilight.

Now let's compare that to Shiki. Shiki is an old horror anime from like 2010 about vampires who move to a Japanese village and start farming the citizens. In the Shiki universe, vampires are treated as fiction, as in, no sane person would think vampires were behind the deaths. It starts off slow, with a rogue doctor trying to find out what's causing the deaths. He discovers that all the victims died of anemia (blood loss) but they had no signs of a struggle, so he digs deeper and deeper and conducts countless experiments trying to find out what's causing the mass anemia.

*Massive spoilers ahead, so if you haven't seen Shiki and you want to, please skip ahead until you see the "SAFE" mark in bold*





The doctor ends up eventually putting the pieces together, along with a few other villagers, and the script immediately flips. The humans hunt down the vampires, stake them to death outside and crucify them in the sunlight, brutally murdering each vampire in horrifying ways. At one point they pin down one of the village girls who became a vampire and run her head over with a tractor.

One of the vampires pleas for her life, declaring that it wasn't her fault that she had to drink human blood to survive- and they raise the philosophical question of whether vampires should have the right to live if it means humans have to die. Does one species's right to live trump the other's?

(Sidenote: it was proven that animal blood and human blood stored in containers doesn't work, so "vegan" vampires and vampires drinking blood donated at blood drives is out of the picture.)

The aforementioned doctor goes on to capture and torture one of the vampires- his wife, of course, because this show wasn't fucked up enough already- to find out their weaknesses and how their anatomy works.

The show starts off like a murder mystery, where the humans are the good guys and they're trying to figure out what's causing the village deaths, and then half-way through it becomes this murderous Salem Witch Trial where they hunt down and slaughter anyone even remotely suspected of being a vampire.






So imagine this.

You run a writing workshop and tell three different people to write a vampire story.

One writes a sappy unhealthy-relationship-worshiping romance involving a pedo vampire and a dull 16-year-old girl.

One writes about a badass bounty hunter killing other supernatural beings and absorbing their souls to become more powerful (and also Nazi vampires and KKK crusaders because why the hell not).

And the third writes a supernatural murder mystery turned Salem-witch-trial-gore-fest.

You could give two different people the same story idea and both will come back with completely different books.

Not only are there millions of ideas, but no book is merely the sum of its parts.

To put it simply, there is functionally* an infinite combination of words that can form a book.

            *Technically there is a limited number of possible combinations; the Library of Babel is a spontaneous word generator that contains every possible combination of words and letters, for a total of 10^5,000 books. To put that into perspective, there are only 10^80 atoms in the observable universe. There are more books in the Library of Babel database than there are fucking ATOMS in the known universe. However, the Library of Babel contains every possible combination of words, most of which don't even form sentences, while books use actual sentences and grammar; this means that there are fewer than 10^5000 possible books if we assume these books are written in actual sentences and not procedurally generated strings of gibberish, but considering there are 170,000 words and an average novel is about 85,000 words, this would mean that there was potentially 170,000^85,000 word combinations divided by the number of possible coherent sentences, which would drastically cut the number to well below 10^5000 mark but would still be unfathomably large and, for all intents and purposes, functionally infinite. Please correct me if my math is wrong.

When you have 171,476 words at your disposal, and around 50,000 - 100,000 words of space to work with, you can create a purely original story, crafted out of unique ideas, creative execution, quirky story-telling techniques, unexplored narrative style, characters of no one else's imagining, and any number of countless unexplored dominions.

The possibilities are so endless that there is no excuse for never having an original thought.

I'm not saying that every word of your writing has to be dripping with pure originality; but there is no excuse for not being able to create something new. Any theme or concept that has been done hasn't been done in every way possible. Since the number of possible stories centering around any singular concept is functionally infinite (as in the heat death of the universe would occur before all possibilities were exhausted), anyone can write an original story in some way. Every now and then, if I'm lucky, a wild original idea will appear while I'm singing in the shower or scrolling through my Facebook feed on the toilet, and I usually try to do a good job of scribbling the idea down somewhere before I forget, no matter how confident I am that I'll totally remember it (I won't).

Creativity is both derivative and bohemian.

We derive elements of craft, such as the organization of words and the execution of phrases, to weave together sentences that resonate pleasantly with the reader and convey our message clearly.

There is some leeway-  some writers, like Cassandra Clare, focus more on trying to sound poetic than on clarity, utilizing purple-prose, while others have almost no pretty-prose at all but tell a powerful and beautiful story despite using plain, straight-forward sentences. Stories like Lord of the Flies prove that a story can be beautiful despite not having fancy prose adorned with literary decorum. The Shadowhunter series proves that purple prose without clarity isn't always good.

And books like Main Traveled Roads and Don Quixote prove that you can pull a Hannah Montana and have the best of both worlds, coupling beautiful prose with clarity and pace to create something stellar.

Yet, despite the leeway, these are merely stylistic choices- innovative in voice, perhaps, but not in the medium of story-telling altogether. That's not to say that no author has ever written something groundbreaking, but new writing styles are original and derivative all at once; each author has a unique style or voice, and every writer's voice is different and unique only to them. This means that every style is a new and original one, but none of them stray too far from conventional ideas of how writing in the English language works.

The way English is structured, as well as any coherent language for that matter, allows for incredible creativity and personal freedom without ever relinquishing its base parts.

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end, every story has to develop the main character(s) in some way, and at some point there needs to be a climax and resolution (not always resolution, but that's a post for another day. Some stories end without the threat being resolved).

So every writer has billions of ways to maneuver in these yolks, but they never break free from them. To do so would inevitably lead to a poor story, because this structure is all that humans know. For thousands of years stories have been told this way, and even if the English language changes so drastically that it's completely unrecognizable 200 years from now by today's standards, the basic story-telling structure will still be the same.

So now I hope I've instilled enough confidence in you to relocate your butt to your writing utensil and create something original, which was the whole goal of this post. But if you're up on cloud nine, thinking about how badass and original your story is going to be, and you find yourself starting to look down on other writers who are struggling to come up with original content, just remember: anything you've ever written, will write or could write already exists in the Library of Babel, and the feeling of superiority should subside.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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