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March 24, 2006

Becoming Creative 1: I'm So Boring

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few months ago, I wrote about how The Wife and I co-ghostwrote a commercial novel. Happily, our fiction partnership hasn't stopped with co-ghosting. We've continued collaborating on pieces of fiction under our own names, and we're having a great time doing so.

Part of the fun has been cutting loose together. Where the novel was a commission job -- a piece of mainstream (if very randy) fluff -- the fiction we've been writing since has been our own thing. Which isn't to say we aren't hyper-proud of our ghosted novel. We are. In the nine weeks we were given to write the book, we created a 300 page novel complete with characters, a plot, a lot of character-motivated sex, and even a few jokes and observations. But doing our own thing has been its own giddy high.

Being as full of ourselves as any other artists, The Wife and I think that we've taken on an important question: humor and eroticism. (Now you know what our idea of "an important question" is ... ) The usual thing is to see laughs and heat as being at war with each other. As humor is usually used, it undercuts the sexiness of the moment. The joke pushes you outside the moment; you may enjoy the laugh, but the mood evaporates. (Unless we're talking about something like "Road Trip" ... ) And as sexiness and heat are usually used, they're so solemn that the merest hint of irreverence breaks the spell.

Why should this be so? After all, don't well-matched sex partners often have a jolly time together? Doesn't having a laugh sometimes put you in the mood? And don't humor and heat both make contributions to the more general pleasure-thang? In our own real-life case, this has certainly all been the case. When The Wife and I met we discovered not only that we dug each other in a slow-dancin' kind of way, but that we were able on a regular basis to send each other into fits of giggles. Both of the these things played big roles in our sense of delight and discovery. Both were part of our attraction to/for each other.

With questions like these on our minds, it's no surprise that the fiction we have been writing has turned out to be raucous, dirty, click-here-to-verify-that-you're-18-or-over comic fiction. We're co-writing a lot of satirical erotica: Terry Southern meets Jackie Collins, basically, or so we fondly imagine. We hope it's funny, and we hope it's hot. We also hope that the time is ripe for this kind of thing, and that a few people -- oh, heck, a ton of people -- will get a kick out of what we do.

While The Wife has been a fiction writer forever, I'm a Creativity newbie. Genuine creativity, anyway. Before beginning to work with The Wife, I'd done my best for years to escape from my assigned role as a grown-up Smart Kid. (Smart Kid-ism is dandy, and god bless anyone who enjoys the scene and who plays the role well. It doesn't suit me, though.) What I really wanted to do was make art-and/or-entertainment things.

So I'd applied myself to fiction. Although I wrote a lot of it, I was happy with precisely none of what I produced. I developed technical chops and my imagination has always been plenty free. But the fiction I finished on my own was dead, and I knew it. It had energy and craft, but it also had zero fictional life. Something essential -- the essential thing, really -- was missing. Which left me, as you might imagine, very frustrated. Was I to remain trapped inside the Smart Kid world forever, semi-miserable if also getting-by? Would the experience of creating living art-or-entertainment things be closed to me forever?

The writing I've been doing with The Wife has been a very different, and very satisfying, matter. Whatever its deficits and its virtues, it has the spark; it's bursting with fictional life. The Wife deserves 110% of the credit for this. While I busy myself with story-engineering matters and with dreaming up action possibilities, The Wife has a freakishly unstoppable gift for endowing imaginary circumstances with pulse, with blood, and with conviction -- with a sense of reality, whatever that may be. When she's done with her work, the plots have hooks, the situations have tang, and the characters walk around on their own two feet. As a reader, you're convinced -- in a fictional-contexty way -- that what you're reading is alive. The stories may or may not succeed in other ways, but you never question their validity. You know these people. You want to see what they do, where they go, and what becomes of them.

I'm now getting the chance to put my imagination, my energy, and my chops to the service of gen-u-wine, living-breathing fiction. And, as Rachael Ray would say, how fun is that? Smart Kid-ism? I'm outta there, never to return. From here on, it's Creativity all the way.

As far as I'm concerned, part of the aventure of the past year and a half of co-writing has been taking note of how becoming a Creative Person is affecting my habits and my life. Creativity, I'm discovering, can be a high unlike most others. It semi-akin to partner dancing or to superfab sex -- a whirling and nourishing experience greater than the sum of its parts. But when the magic is really working, there's isn't much that's quite like it. You feel inspired, borne along by Larger Forces.

But I'm also discovering that Creativity can be exhausting. Not a surprise that work of any kind takes it out of you, of course. But the particular kind of exhausting that Creativity can be is a little different than the usual. It isn't the tiredness that sets in after an effort of will has been made or a task has been executed. It's less about fatigue and more about ... obliteration. A rendezvous with the Larger Forces seems to leave me in need of complete biological/spiritual reconstitution. Or maybe I'm turning into a drama queen. Hard to tell sometimes.

That's one small discovery that I've made about Becoming Creative. Another is that Becoming Creative has turned me into a much different culture-consumer than I used to be. A much duller one, I'm afraid. So long as The Wife and I are finishing pieces of fiction and then moving along to finish further pieces of fiction, my appetite for culture-exploration is minuscule. Once we've completed our writing and have attended to the mandatory life chores, I don't have much left in me. All I really want to do is hang out, catch up on sleep, drag myself to yoga and to gyro, see some friends, solve some Sudoku puzzles, and watch DVDs. Museums? They can wait. Concerts? Maybe next lifetime. Long books? Spare me.

I've become much more boring than I once was -- but I do feel that I'm at least in some good comic-writing company. People who met the great P.G. Wodehouse were almost always disappointed. Although a dazzler on the page, Wodehouse was apparently as dull as dishwater in person. He wrote six or seven pages of fiction a day. When he was done, he liked to take it easy, and in the most banal ways. (Near the end of his life, he developed a fondness for bad TV shows.) I guess visitors and fans wanted to think of their hero as a sparkling creature of infinite prowess and unstoppable vigor. Instead, what they discovered was that, outside his creative work, P.G. mainly wanted to veg.

All this leaves me musing about something. Namely: What is this Creativity thing that so many people seem to crave participation in, whether as maker or consumer? And, if the chance to participate in it is such a strong part of the appeal of Creativity, why isn't more culture more straightforwardly participatory?

A small anthro-art-historical note. We who grew up in Euro-culture often assume that the normal thing is a division between the artist (or artwork) and the audience. For many people of Euro-descent it's the standard model of how culture experiences are structured: artist (or artwork) up there, audience down here. Yet, cultural-anthroplogy-wise, this is in fact a strange and peculiar model. In many cultures, the art-thang is expected to be participatory. The art-things themselves -- the music, the storytelling, the performers, the visuals -- aren't meant to be the whole show. They're expected to be catalysts for a general celebration.

You don't have to look far for examples of this. There's very little black-American culture, for instance, that doesn't expect you to join in. I don't know that you can "get" black American art without understanding how fundamental to a lot of it the call-and-response pattern is. Church services, moviegoing, oratory, storytelling, comedy shows ... It all goes back and forth. Even the jazz convention of the soloist trading licks with the ensemble is usefully-understood as a manifestation of the call-and-response pattern.

A few examples: Although he did some concert performances in highbrow venues, Duke Ellington always said that what he ran wasn't a concert orchestra but a dance band. In other words, you weren't really having the Duke Ellington experience unless you showed up, you drank, you flirted, and you moved your body. When you attend a horror movie with a mostly-black audience, you're likely to encounter lots of whoopin' and talking-back-to-the-screen. That isn't bad moviegoing behavior, at least not in black terms. Getting a chance to whoop and talk back to the screen is the reason these audiences show up in the first place. Interacting with the screen is what "the movies" is all about. When the author Terry Macmillan -- some of whose novels I like a lot, btw -- did her first author tours, bookstore employees and owners were amazed by the spectacle. They'd never seen anything like it. Hundreds of black women showed up. And they didn't show up to snooze virtuously through some boring "reading." They showed up to take part in a good time. They showed up to hear and see Terry, but also to do some testifyin' of their own. Terry and her fans had themselves modern-day revival meetings.

A widely-noted consequence of culture going digital is that it seems to be becoming much more participatory than it has been for decades. Video games, Flickr-style photo sharing, web-surfing, Apple's music software Garage Band, reading and commenting on blogs -- the usual barriers between performer and audience seem to crumble. Online, we're all (to some extent) performers; we're all (to some extent) audience members.

I'm very fond of the conventional Western-civ art-thing/audience model myself. I was raised in it, I enjoy it, I'm comfortable with it, and I often find myself mourning its passing. I like the fact that movies are up there while I'm back here, darn it. (And god knows that a conventionally well-behaved audience can be something to be cherished.) Yet in many, many other ways I'm also lovin' the porous new electronic culture. After all, why not take active part?

A couple of questions? The corner that we're turning seems to be leading us into (or back to) a more participatory way of interacting with culture. Is this the dawn of a new kind of creativity? Or is it the end of creativity entirely? And, if we all Become Creative, will any of us have the time and energy left over to enjoy other people's creativity?



posted by Michael at March 24, 2006


Everything old is new again.

Before the phonograph, if you wanted music, you had to play it yourself or find someone to play it for you. Now that we can call up any performance of anything at any time in perfectly-played digitally-clear high fidelity, why bother playing it yourself, or listening to an amateur do an okay job of playing it in your living room?

We purchased perfection, but at the high cost of turning ourselves into passive receptacles of pre-packaged mass-marketed creativity produced by others.

I too am excited by developments that make it easier for more people to create. I even find myself drawn more and more to their imperfect and flawed creations, perhaps seeing in them a clearer reflection of the human condition. And isn't that what creativity is all about?

Posted by: Outer Life on March 24, 2006 1:34 PM

I've had many conversations with fellow bloggers about how blogging has changed their "leisure time." Most of us couldn't deal with the loneliness and isolation of being a full-time writer, but blogging is so painless because it is also social. It is part writing, part socializing, and part video game. But because it so captures the imagination, pre-made material such as TV shows and movies seem less interesting -- at least to me. Maybe it's the same cultural movement that makes reality TV so popular. Following a person's life via a blog is way more interesting than watching a daily soap opera. And writing about your OWN LIFE, and having hundreds of people read about is even more exciting then keeping up to date with Britney Spear's baby.

Recently, someone sent me a meme about my favorite current book, movie, song, and TV show. And I suddenly realized I didn't have any. Other than watching "24" and "Lost," I hardly watch TV anymore. And I'm a TV addict. What am I doing in my spare time? Writing blog posts. Reading blogs. Participating. Maybe I'll get bored with it eventually. Or maybe it will inspire me to write more fiction, like you're doing with the wife.

Do we really want a society filled with creative people, ignoring the work of each other? Maybe not.

By the way, I think it's great that the two of you can be so creative together. I once did a project with my wife and we almost killed each other!

Posted by: Neil on March 24, 2006 1:49 PM

I think there's room for both traditional, Western-style receiving art and the participatory style. There are degrees of each, too. One of the reasons I love theater is that it is a participatory experience between performers and audience. Of course, that's one of the reasons I hate it, too--nothing like throwing your heart and soul out there for crap (and I'm talking from the audience perspective at least as much as the performers').

I like that the eWorld is perhaps reconnecting people to the joys of participation. TV is soooo passive; movies less so, but still--if I'm looking for a restful experience, I don't go to a live concert or theatrical event.

Of course, I also don't go to a movie in a heavily African-American neighborhood; there's more audience participation at some of those events than there is in church!

Posted by: communicatrix on March 24, 2006 2:05 PM

Do "thang" be your word these days, bra?

Stop it. It's cheesy. Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy. See, I have a word too.

Cheezy thang.


Posted by: nextren on March 24, 2006 2:24 PM

Let's step back for a sec and put some perspective on this creativity thang/thingy. (Come get me, "nextren." Dare ya!)

Until the day they genetically engineer the human race into grass-munching Vegan Sheeple, there will be lots of variety. Some folks will be hyper-creative, others will have next to no imagination. Some will channel their creative urges in to fiction writing while others will find other outlets.

Take the case of The Fiancee. Her creativity tends to focus on gardening and planning social events of various kinds. Aside from these areas, she's essentially a creativity consumer. As for me, I blog and paint, but I don't compose songs, stage plays, sculpt or do any number of other creative things. So I too am a creativity consumer.

How much creativity we consume depends on how much excess energy we have after doing our daily duties and our creative activities. I suspect that a middle-aged garbageman or hod-carrier is just as depleted at the end of his day as a writer who knocked out 4,000 words.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 24, 2006 3:14 PM

Certainly Australian aboriginal art is the sort of particpatory creativity that Michael mentions:

They say we have been here for 40 000 years, but it is much longer -

We have been here since time began We have come directly out of the Dreamtime of our creative ancestors -

We have kept the earth as it was on the first day.
Our culture is focused on recording the origins of life.

We refer to forces and powers that created the world as creative ancestors.

Our beautiful world has been created only in accordance with the power, wisdom and intentions of our ancestral beings."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 24, 2006 11:09 PM

Wasn't there a fairly long period during which properly brought up people, especially women people, were supposed to be able to be creative about their craftiness? Needlepoint, composing amusing plays for grandpa's birthday, etc.

And congratulations on your adventures.

Posted by: j.c. on March 30, 2006 10:09 PM

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