I’m Not Creative§
by Russell Dyer
published: july 31, 2007; revised: september 03, 2017; readers in past month: 108
I’ve wondered lately if I am creative or if I merely have a creative sense. This is particularly important to me if I want to make my way as a creative writer. When I say creative sense, I mean that I can sense that which is creative — spot a good artistic idea when I see one — as opposed to coming up with a good artistic idea of my own. And if that’s all I have to offer and of which I’m capable, then maybe I should be a literary critic and a professor, and not a writer of fiction. It’s a difficult thing to consider about oneself: am I not creative, will I never be a great writer, and am I only good at analyzing and commenting on the writings of others?
My web site is an example of my creative sense, verses my creative ability in web design. I’ve been told that it is well designed and that it has an artistic look to it. While I did the web design work, including the Perl programming, I stole dozens of ideas from other web sites that I’ve looked at over the years. I took extracted ideas from them which I had the good sense to recognize as artistic, creative. That may sound like an ability that everyone has. However, if you look at the many sites that people who attempt to design their own web site have created, you will see a mess. They use awful color combinations, pointless animations, too many large headings, and confusing layouts. They design their own sites and they look at them and seem to think it looks good. Their friends will even honestly confirm their opinions. They have no sense of what is creative. They can’t look at their own work or at other people’s work to see what is artistic, what is creative, what is new. Without this creative sense, they cannot resolve the problems with their own web sites and they cannot see what makes another person’s site good so that they can steel their ideas. They cannot learn from the examples of others. They’ll look at another person’s site that’s well done and see that it’s well done. But they don’t see what specifically makes it well done to be able to recreate it. Maybe that’s what I am: recreative.
It frustrates me sometimes, this inability to create on my own. Every six months or a year or so, I will look at a blank page in my text editing program and think about creating a new layout for my web site. I like to change it occasionally to keep it fresh and so forth. I sit there and try to think of what I can do that will be unique, new, creative. I get nothing. Then I start to look at my site to see what I can do to change it and improve it. Sometimes I will follow that method. That’s not creative; it’s modifying. Other times I will look at a designer web site (i.e., Design Shack) that shows examples of other well done web sites. I’ll look at them for ideas to glean. Obviously, I’m not alone in this method since these sites are used heavily by web designers. Just once I wish I could get out a piece of paper like they show in design magazines and sketch a new layout that’s daring, and then bring it alive on my web site. Maybe one day I will. However, it’s not important to me that I lack this skill with web design since I don’t make my living doing it and I don’t have a passion for it.
Related to writing, though, I seem to have a similar problem and that worries me a bit. I’m concerned that I don’t have what it takes to create a story from nothing. They say that all plots already exist, that they’ve all been done before and that writers continue to reuse and modify them. Just look at movies for examples of this: The Matrix is the story of Jesus and his apostles; A Bugs Life is a rip off of the movie The Seven Samauri (which its plot has been copied by many movies); Pretty Woman is the Cinderella story; The Borne Identity and sequels is Kafka’s novels The Castle and The Trial; the James Bond movies are based on Italian Renaissance plays; Forest Gump is akin to Dostoevskii’s The Idiot; Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is a take off of his earier film The 39 Steps, which is from the novel of the same name by John Buchan who stole his general plot from Robert Louis Stevensen’s book, Kidnapped. The list is endless.
There are psychological and cultural reasons why plots are repeated, but it’s disconcerting when one wants to be a creative writer and doesn’t feel like he can. I worry that I don’t have the talent to be truly creative. On the other hand, I suspect that in the truest sense, most writers aren’t creative. And that’s alright with me. I just want to know if I’m creative or not.
In the movie Amadeus there’s a couple of scenes that relate to all of this: The character Antonio Salieri tries to create a musical piece in honor of Mozart’s coming to the royal Austrian court. He works very hard and forcefully on creating the piece and is fairly pleased with himself when he’s finished. The king plays it on a harpsichord for Mozart when he arrives. Mozart is unimpressed and hardly pays attention. The king offers to give him the written copy of the piece to treasure. Mozart says it’s not necessary, he’s already memorized it. The king is incredulous and asks him to play it again to prove it. Mozart plays a few bars of it and then he begins to modify it while playing, he improves it greatly, he changes it into something totally different. He is naturally creative.
Part of me realizes that I cannot expect to be a Mozart of literature. But part of me wonders why I shouldn’t either be one or not write if I’m not naturally creative. Am I to be like Salieri, pretending and hoping and praying that I will be creative for decades until I become bitter and hateful regarding my lack of talent and towards the talents of others?
From where does creativity come? Does it come from nowhere, from the void. If something is truely creative and not just innovative, then from the void it can only come. I guess at the heart of the matter, we cannot achieve true creativity. This is the sole domain of God. We mere mortals only take what is created already by God and form new patterns to them. A chemist does not create a new drug, but mixes and processes and modifies existing chemicals to make a new drug. The researcher is said to have found a cure. It’s in the word researcher: one who searches again or searches back. When a painter paints, he usually paints what he sees. Some modern painters say that they paint what they feel, but that’s always been what good painters have done. And so writers must do the same thing: write what they see, what they feel, what they experience, or take off from the experiences of others told to them either verbally or by some other method such as in a novel of a fellow writer.
But, and I hate to keep going around in circles on this, but what of Mozart. Was he creative? His many great works seem to indicate that he was. I think the flaw in my thinking, in my contrasting is that we make gods of humans. If you’ve watched the Amadeus movie, Mozart was not even an angel in other areas of his life. Still, we tend to make gods of some artists in their particular specialty. My flaw in my logic above is that I am forgetting my spiritual philosophy (my St. Thomas Acquinas methods of reasoning): first, only God can create, whereas humans can share in that creative process by innovating God’s creations, by developing them further. This is the meaning behind the concept of humans being creative in God’s image. We are an image of God, not gods. Second and therefore, when someone is said to be creative, despite the misconception of that term, in its use as applied to humans, it is a metaphor. Third, despite the seemingly creative nature of artists like Mozart, he was in essence excellent at seeing and reusing ideas, finding new patterns, developing that which has been already been created. Some who are very spiritual would dispute this and say that Mozart was a conduit of God and was an instrument of God’s creativity. Well, aren’t we all? And isn’t that my third point here, that we all have the ability to see into the mindscape of God and express it in our reality for others to see, and that Mozart’s abilities to see and to express is what made him great. To suggest that he was creative in the truest sense is to suggest that he was divine and not a man who was an instrument of the Divinity.
Well, leaving the philosophy again and back to my reality: I think I have some talent for writing and for creative writing, in the figurative sense. How much talent, it’s hard for me to tell. More importantly, how much talent I can develop is much more difficult to know. Some artists practice their arts all of their lives and never become great. That’s fine for them. They’re happy with their art. That is the primary point, anyway. However, I aspire to greatness. I just don’t know that I’ll ever achieve it. I hope to do that: not to be a billionaire like that Potter woman. I would rather write novels like Franz Kafka and make a modest living than write the rubbish like the Harry Potter novels and make all of her money. But that’s the artistic snob in me: sorry.
Having written all of this, I suspect another flaw in my discourse here: I don’t know much about music. To me, the writing of a song is magical. So, naturally Mozart’s music sounds to me like a god created it. Therefore, let me start over with a better comparison that I can get my mind around: Shakespeare.
The writings of Shakespeare are so beautiful that when I delve into them fully, it makes my eyes water. To someone who doesn’t know better, he would say that Shakespeare was creative. He certainly is the Mozart of English literature. Despite his amazing talent, though, he wasn’t creative. His plays were taken from other other stories in the culture of them time or from history. Romeo and Juliette, for instance, is from a few Italian plays of similar name. His historical plays like Henry V were taken from historical facts and writings and were embellished. Where his talent shines was not in the creation of plots, but how he used his words. Just look at this famous excerpt from Henry V. In this scene, they English are about to enter into battle in France and one of the characters mumbles a comment indicating that he’s worried. The King responds with an awesome and inspiring speach that is one of the great writings in English literature:
Westmoreland: O that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England That do no work to-day.
King Henry: What’s he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin. If we are marked to die, we are enough To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God’s will! I pray thee wish not one man more. By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It ernes me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires. But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive. No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England. God’s peace, I would not lose so great an honour As one man more methinks would share from me For the best hope I have. O do not wish one more. Rather proclaim it presently through my host That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart. His passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse. We would not die in that man’s company That fears his fellowship to die with us. This day is called the Feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day and comes safe home, Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall see this day and live t’old age Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours And say. “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.” Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.” Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he’ll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day. Then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words — Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester — Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered. This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by From this day to the ending of the world But we in it shall be remembered, We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
What incredible writing in a story without an original plot, based on embellished historical facts. It’s one of the best examples of writings in the English language. And yet it’s not creative, it’s just good.
I guess that writing is like photography, to use yet another analogy. A photographer doesn’t create the things of which she takes pictures. Instead, her talent is to see the beauty that others walk past without noticing. In seeing that beauty, she uses her talents and other tools that she knows how to wield so well, to capture what she sees, so that those who cannot see what she sees can more clearly see it. In the same way a great writer does this: he sees moments in life that are beautiful or intriguing or have some other value about them which is overlooked, and he writes it down so that those who cannot see what he sees can see it, can experience what he experiences. That is art. That is the goal, not creativity. Creativity is the domain of God. We artists merely make artificial representations of what we see in Creativity, we merely make art. That is our privilege and our joy and that is enough.