Tabula Rasa Writers

What does it mean to be creative? Is creativity about being full of ideas? Whos’ ideas?

Many folks feel like they’re “uncreative,” assuming that writing fantasy/speculative/fiction is an inherently more creative task than, say, creative non-fiction.

Fiction is harder to get right. It’s hard to write fiction that isn’t thinly veiled nonfiction. And in general, creative writing is self-indulgent.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers.

—Kurt Vonnegut, “How To Write With Style”

So what about empty writers?

I have a weird skill. I like to describe it as the “brain wipe.” It’s a way to dispel the curse of knowledge, the curse of letting prior knowledge taint your future expectations.

It’s an attitude, I guess, where I read what I wrote and still get excited about it. No matter how much I’ve planned ahead and already know the ending, I read it emotionally from the beginning. I feel nostalgic and laugh at my own jokes. I remember how I felt about being blissfully ignorant and unaware, being new and being junior. What it’s like to learn, to discover important information, to treasure the memories, when being stupid was enjoyable and you didn’t know the forbidden pitfalls yet. Like how Harry Potter, a student protagonist in The Half Blood Prince book, finds an old textbook for class. His copy of the textbook contains red ink, cheats and shortcuts written in the margins, from a bygone student who left behind some hard-earned lessons.

When it comes to technical writing, I like to pretend that I can bring forth that “cheat code” feeling and make the reader feel magical. But it comes at the cost of knowing nothing.

Maybe it’s to be celebrated, like when Jesus recommends his disciples to become childish:

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

—Matthew 18:1-4, Bible version

Why is the word “childish” considered an insult? It’s good to learn like a child.

Children learn because they have to. They have nothing going for them. No one takes their advice or perspectives seriously, as they are constantly being reminded that their futures are doomed to suck. Everyone sighs, “Ah, youth is wasted on the young.” Everyone tells them it’s better to be stupid while simultaneously telling them to be more wise. Are their heads so empty that when we see them, we feel the desire to stuff them with our cheese?

(Cheese is pretty tasty for being solidified mold milk. I’ve noticed that most kids love cheese.)

Vonnegut thinks a writer should have many ideas that are interesting, otherwise a writer without mental acuity is nothing more than a twat who puffs hot air. He wrote, “Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.”

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

Popular idiom

But when I think about it, empty writers are everywhere. For people who cannot write, but want something written with their ideas at the forefront, they can pay a ghostwriter. Ghostwriters are supposed to be empty, in that they should believe “the customer is always right in matters of taste.” They are there to perform a service, to do what the customer cannot do for themselves, without arguing about whether the work has merit. And in that case, an empty-headed writer with a mastery of language is exactly who you want to hire.

Or is it? If you hire someone who needs hand-holding, are you going to get frustrated with that? If someone dislikes vague ideas and would rather be told what to do, would you sigh and hope a “real creative idea consultant” comes around?

What about editors who are more skilled at editing than writing? It’s not that their writing is bad, but they somehow have a knack for making other people’s work shine brighter than their own. Are they to be looked down upon, because they’ve tried writing but haven’t reached the same originality as the literary superstars? An empty-headed editor, whose job is to tell authors what to do.

Can good books be written by only one author? Why does the Acknowledgements page seem so long? Does having multiple outside perspective not only shape their book, but tell them how to make it better too? Do we instinctively rely on other people to inform us of poisonous plants we shouldn’t stick into our mouths, or should we ignore our fear and go forth boldly to discover new tastes?

I think in the end, we want different things. Some people want an empty cup to carry their desire, and others want a machine that makes the coffee. And it gets really tricky when people say, “Sure I’d like a cup,” but what they really mean is they want coffee.

People don’t appreciate it when you interpret them literally. They expect you to be creative, otherwise they look at you like you’re the epitome of a failure who wrongfully survived a Social Darwinism experiment. I guess if you’re not creative enough, you’re better off dead. Is creativity really a valued trait in humans? Is it better to be creative or to be intelligent or to be humble or to be happy or just follow directions and “be cooperative?”

Don’t try to be creative. You’ll become known for it.

You can be creative. You were born for it.

I need a beer.