Monday, May 14, 2012

The Creative Process

"All stories begin with a moral ambiguity."

That is the "keeper" I took away from a video I watched last night, a short 25-minute presentation Amy Tan gave at a TED conference.  (It's online at Netflix streaming right here. Scroll down the page; it's number 12.)

Her talk was titled "Where does creativity hide?" and, of course, Tan delivered it with her usual charm and self-deprecating humor. She speculates a bit about why certain people seem more creative than others (a gene? Psychosis?) but spends most of her time talking about how she gets started and then how things miraculously, without intention, seem to fall into place as she struggles with problems that arise in the process of writing a story. She wonders if the miracles aren't really serendipity but more the result of being focused on a particular thing more so than usual and so she sees connections that, without the focus, she would not have otherwise noticed. She mentions these coincidences of the creative process several times--which Jung would probably call synchronicity, the recesses of the mind calling forth from the Universe what it needs, though she doesn't label it like this. In any case, it's anxiety producing when the connections aren't coming. There is no worse feeling than feeling the push to go somewhere but to be stuck, unsure of where to go. You may forge ahead anyway, then wind up trashing fifty pages when the connection does reveal itself to you.

It's most telling that Tan doesn't offer the usual baloney about receiving an inspiration in a flash and it's like a switch gets turned on in the head and the writer channels a book all at once. That is the impression a lot of people have. Likewise, it's not all grunt work of intention and deliberation, the 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration that others claim: Tan doesn't sit down and write out pages and pages of pre-planning and outlining, either. I have found that too much pre-planning and outlining kills a creative work in any case. If you figure out what's supposed to happen ahead of time, if you know how the conflict is going to work itself out, you lose interest in your own work because there's nothing to explore. You've already solved the moral ambiguity in your own head.

So, creative writing isn't expository writing: you have no idea where the story is going to go. The story and the characters work all out that out as you write (and that's where the synchronicity or serendipity works itself in). But it's not divinely inspired, either: most stories begin with the idea of a character or characters who interest you, and then you imagine them in a situation--and to truly get interested in their situation, there has to be some kind of moral problem that you, as the writer, feel ambiguous about. Your characters are lost in this sea of what-to-do, what-to-do. You don't know the solution yourself. You write to find out.

Too much intention kills the creative process. I remember a professor in graduate school recalling that William Faulkner had written several of his finest books--Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and some of the best short stories--when one critic landed on what he thought Faulkner was all about in his creation of Yoknapatawhpha County. Faulkner happened to read the critic and thought, "Oh, is THAT what I'm doing?" But it ruined him thereafter. He became conscious of his intentions (or took them on) and the quality of his work dropped off. (Either that, or his alcoholism was catching up with him and fuzzying up that sharp mind of his.)

So there's a paradox about creativity. You begin with a question, and in answering the question, you stumble across more questions, and eventually your story finds its way to an ending. The questions, ironically, may never even be satisfactorily answered. But a "moral" to the story is not the point. You are simply exploring the human condition and, hopefully, your readers will feel compassion for your characters. As a writer, you certainly do. You can come to love even the most despicable people because you at least understand them and their choices. But that's your stuff. Once the story is out of your hands, it's up to the reader to decide whether they are moved by your characters' handling of life's moral ambiguities. They may not be.

But if you've succeeded--and whether or not the reading public likes it--you've put out into the world a nugget of truth--via the world of fiction.