On Creativity

writing-with-pen

I write poetry fairly regularly. Pop culture criticism increasingly often. But I’ve wanted to write a novel for about 7 years, and so far have not had the time/guts/patience. I’ll be launching a series of posts reflecting on creativity and what it involves.

What I immediately run into, what I think most artists of any kind run into, is not just self-doubt, but in particular, unless you have the particular naive arrogance of the teens and early twenties, self-contempt. Any good craftsman has a wide and deep and constantly evolving familiarity with the successes in his craft, with the novel or the painting or the installation that succeeded, with the artists who are succeeding. In particular, with the history of all the great works in your particular genre within your particular field of art, that have been produced, and the ones that are currently being produced.

In the face of this, it’s hard, can feel nearly impossible, to produce anything at all original or new.

Which is why I’m beginning to grapple with the idea of creativity as something fundamentally not original, as, ultimately, imitation, perseverance, and will rather than inspiration and originality.

Brainpickings features a lot of articles on writing I enjoy, and this letter from Mark Twain was a recent one that’s stuck with me –

“As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of allhuman utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.”

Do you produce art of some kind? What are your personal struggles as you go about making it? I’d love to hear from you.

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