Friday, July 17, 2009

No Rest for the Creative

by Mysti Berry

My favorite villains are truly creative.

Take for example Brigid O’Shaughnessey from Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. That woman creates whole new personalities with each thrust of Spade’s inquiring mind, and later, she weaves web after web of deception as annoying facts or bothersome questions emerge. When Sam Spade says at the end of the story that the bird is “the stuff that dreams are made of,” he’s too right. The gold-fevered imaginations of oily Cairo, urbane Gutman, and the deadly Ms. O’Shaughnessey feed directly into their creative skills at lying, cheating, and killing.  Skills they’ve clearly honed over a lifetime.
Being a technical writer by trade, I try to break everything down into component parts, even something as ephemeral as creativity, so that I can understand it better. (Maybe I shouldn’t blame technical writing for that personality trait. When I was younger than six my Dad had to yell at me for taking apart an electric clock, just to see how it worked. To be fair, he actually yelled at me for not being able to put it back together.) After chewing on the concept of creativity for a while now, I’d like to propose a theory of creativity. Not how to get it, or how to protect it from cruel critique groups or partners who say things like “don’t write a novel, you’d write the kind of novel I hate,” but rather, how creativity actually works.
The first step is imagination, the ability to spontaneously generate ideas or images that don’t yet exist, that have never existed in any other mind in quite the same way. If you dream, your imagination is still intact – even if you dream about calculus or chemistry!
The next step is to express that imagination in some physical way. Children who fingerpaint or grandfathers who carve trains out of hunks of knotty pine are being creative. So are teenagers who make up sleepovers that were never arranged with friends that never existed, just so they can go see Jack White in concert. But I don’t think a single creative act is the last step.
True creative output, performed over months and years and not just when the mood strikes, depends on two things: effort executed over consistent periods of time, and the honing of natural or acquired skills.  If I am to bridge the gap between technical writer and creative writer, for example, I must learn a cadre of skills that are seldom exercised in my day job, such as writing dialog that sounds like real speech but with the boring bits cut out, or the rhythmic possibilities in the alternation of scene and summary.
The toughest part about being creative is learning how to assess our own skills and abilities – in essence, to learn from our own mistakes. As a species, we don’t have the best record of that. Perhaps each attempt at a creative act is an expression of hope that we’ll finally learn, this time.
My new favorite villain, Bernie Madoff, was a bad man. But he was creative, like Brigid O’Shaughnessey. He could riff in the moment to create the illusions required to separate people from their money. He got better at it over time, presumably learning from his mistakes much more quickly than poor old Brigid did. We can only hope that our own creative output can rival that of Bernie or Brigid, just as we hope the output treats our fellows far better than the two of them ever did.
Mysti Berry has won awards as a screenwriter, technical writer, short fiction writer and novelist. Mysti's short fiction has been published in "Switchback," the online literary journal sponsored by University of San Francisco. She was an invited reader during the 2006 LitQuake festival in San Francisco. Her work has been included in published anthologies. She teaches for University of California at Berkeley Extension. Mysti is a board member of Sisters in Crime Northern California chapter, and has presented to that group. She lives in San Francisco with her talented graphic novelist husband Dale Berry.


Sophie Littlefield said...

"Perhaps each attempt at a creative act is an expression of hope that we’ll finally learn, this time." That was lovely,,,and a fresh way to look at creativity - thanks, Mysti!

Gigi Pandian said...

I *wish* I had been that kid who took apart clocks to see how they worked. Instead, I just watched MacGyver and the Misfits of Science.

Juliet Blackwell said...

I love this -- I was just thinking about how much more fun it is to write about villains rather than heroes. I know, I know, the hero/ine can be fun and creative too, but I often find myself enjoying the villains more. Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker? No contest. And thanks for the fresh look at the hard work that goes into creativity...maybe I'll stop whining and actually write something today!!!

Adrienne Miller said...

Some of my more creative moments were those stories I told my parents to go to that concert ;-) Great post.