Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Creative Thought

Creativity is a fascinating thing. There’s a theory that says that if you put enough monkeys to work pounding on keyboards that one of them would eventually produce some great creative work, like one of Shakespeare’s plays or something. I very much doubt that. I tend to think that we would just have random garbage, though we might have the random garbage duplicated by many of them. But why worry about monkeys? If we wanted, we could put a bunch of computers to work generating every possible combination of words and given enough time, they would reproduce some great literary work. Having done that, we could then say that among the stuff they produced leading up to that event there are probably some fairly decent literary works that were produced that no human has written. We know they exist. The problem is that we don’t know which ones they are. We can thrust in our hand, pull out a manuscript and we will probably find nothing but garbage, a jumbled mess of words that don’t form sentences.

In the creative process, we bypass a lot of the garbage that a machine would create. Even if we had the machine throw out anything without complete sentences, it wouldn’t know if those sentences fit together well. But as writers we skip over a lot of the stuff a machine might do. Even if we don’t create a great literary work, we are able to know what we wish to communicate and then choose words that communicate what we like. It’s an amazing thing that no machine has ever been able to duplicate. For an author to be able to write a boring book is an amazing thing, though having that capability won’t produce much income.

Michelangelo is said to have claimed that to create David he chipped away everything that wasn’t David. I suppose we could say we do something similar as writers. We are throwing out all of the manuscripts that the computer could produce that aren’t worth reading. But the skill isn’t in knowing what to throw away as much as it is in knowing what to keep. When they carved Mount Rushmore, they first created some smaller models. From those, all of the workers knew what to keep and what to throw away. As writers, we are writing down examples of what we believe we ought to keep out of the vast sum of possible manuscripts. Personally, I don’t think that helps to explain the creative process any better than Michelangelo’s explanation.

The creative process is more about vision. The reason Michelangelo was able to free David from the stone was because Michelangelo saw David in the stone. There were an infinite number of other things hiding in that stone, but Michelangelo chose to free only David. Before we write, we see the story before us. We believe there is a story worth telling and we believe we can put it down on paper. The image we see is quite vague until we write it down. We move our words around a bit, hoping to change the written story into the thing we see in our heads. The better we are at reproducing our vision on paper, the better the story will be.