What we do is often referred to as “creative” writing. But just how creative are most of us in our work? Creative writing instructors (at least mine) are fond of saying that there are no hard and fast rules for writing creatively, but that there are conventions, mostly unspoken agreements among writers and readers as to what is acceptable/publishable in the literary landscape. This, of course, changes over time, and is what allows for a small amount of true creativity to infiltrate and possibly alter accepted style.
The impetus for this blog post comes from an article on my favorite Australian website, Aeon/Psyche, “Are Successful Authors Creative Geniuses or Literary Labourers?” The article begins by comparing the literary careers of two well-known writers, Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Today Poe is far more famous than Verne. During the times they were alive Poe was considered a minor writer, while Verne was incredibly popular. But Poe was the innovator, Verne merely adapted Poe’s style for his own writing. Poe died in poverty, Verne became fabulously wealthy. Perhaps what’s most important to remember is that Poe continued to experiment with forms of writing. The article refers to Poe as writing, “…nothing is more thoroughly dignified or supremely noble than a poem which is a poem and nothing more.”
When Verne found what worked in the marketplace, he stopped tinkering and wrote everything in the same style with similar plotlines. Verne became a literary laborer, churning out essentially the same product, over and over. Although he often paid homage to Poe, his motivation appears to have been primarily to make money, more than to be creative. I think it’s safe to say that Poe had those priorities reversed.
I’m trying not to say that one path to writing is better than the other. Any effort to bring literature and ideas to the public is of some benefit. Definitely both approaches to creative writing are necessary—the laborer approach is needed to engage the public. If everything was purely creative the number of people who actually read would drop significantly (and it’s low enough already). But creativity and experimentation with writing, trying to find new ways to convey meaning, is what drives the form forward. This doesn’t mean writing obscurely—in fact it’s the opposite—writing that seeks to connect more organically with readers. I’m reminded of the Paris writers of the early 1900s (the movable feast of Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, etc.), all of whom contributed to a major shift in the style of creative writing, away from the authorial intrusion of previous times to a more character-based, immersive approach that allowed readers to connect emotionally to characters. This reflected similar shifts in art and society at that volatile time. The members of that group were the right people at the right time to lead the changes in creative form that we think of as conventions today. Similarly the work of the Language Poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) of the 1960s and 70s reflected societal changes that questioned traditionally held values by calling into question how we perceive the words themselves. In the article, the author, Oleg Sobchuk, discusses “hot streaks,” the times when new forms seem to catch on with the public.
There are always many writers doing amazing things with literary form. But we live in a time in which conformity seems to be a powerful driver of how we live. Yes, there is polarization in our society, but whichever side you’re on it seems you are increasingly driven to conform to the beliefs of the side you choose to be on. It’s no surprise to me that writers who experiment are not well represented in the marketplace these days. But there are always venues that champion this type of creativity. Orca has always looked for imagination and experimentation with style and language, and moving forward we will seek to expand that effort and include even more work that challenges mainstream conventions.
– Joe Ponepinto