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Authorship: A Misconception of Invention

01/12/2016 11:19

Fictional creativity is seen as similarly inventive as other art forms, but the great lie is that it's a profession that simply can't be as imaginative as first assumed.

Occasionally someone will talk to me about writing. They're normally supportive and interested (perhaps), but almost all will assume I'm an imaginative and inventive person. I smile of course, and make some self-deprecating response while secretly feeling quite happy. It's nice to be seen in that way as if I have joined some venerable, romantic profession. The reality is far from that. In fact, I have a hard time inventing much at all, and I am glad that's the case, because I want to write great fiction.

When I first started to write in my naive and slightly arrogant teens, I thought I could put pen to paper and create something brilliant. I thought of a story, a character, a world, and a situation, and wrote it. I was proud at the time, and in my haste, I posted it on a film forum for it to get, quite kindly upon reflection, eviscerated.

I couldn't understand it. How could people judge what I had written so negatively? I had spelt everything correctly (my main concern at the time), and surely they couldn't actually pick apart the story? They aren't factually good or bad, right? Writing fiction was something I could just -- do.

One response from the script I wrote, from a now long standing friend, sticks with me to this day: 'You need to understand the rules in order to break them creatively'. So, in response to this advice, I turned to the books. I think I read ten to twenty different books on how to write in a single year. I used to slip into the toilets at work and read voraciously on paradigms, plot points, story models, archetypes, and with sticky notes and pens pinched from the supply locker, I systematically learned the rules of writing. I even decided to go to university to make sure I knew what I was talking about.

I soon felt the spell of the inventive process just drain from me. It had become hard, more like a brain puzzle. I was writing from what felt like a manual, and to some extent at least, that is exactly what writing a quality story is.

Creativity is seen to many as pure expression, perhaps best achieved by invention, but the problem for the author is that their product relies almost completely on an already intimately well-known 'invention'. Of course writers can create beautifully detailed worlds and beings, but because all stories are drawn on and gain their resonance from the human experience, authors are unable to invent the most important part of their stories. They are chained to them with little wriggle room.

Since human nature and the organisation of the human species exists and has been tested throughout time to see how it all works, authors must conform to these well-established views, and this is where the illusion of creativity in fiction comes crashing down.

A story's power exits on the fundamental linchpin that is understandable and accessible characters that exist because of 'whys'. Why is this character the way they are? What's their backstory, and how have they come to be in the story at this time? People and societies are not just created after all (if you subscribe to that generally accepted point of view). They are forged. You can't just plonk Rachel, the socially anxious vet, in a story fully formed as a relatable human being without reasons for her characteristics, her societal attitudes, her motivation.

I've been fascinated by people since I started writing because of this need to understand reasons behind actions. I continue to read up on, watch, or listen to anything I can wiggle my mind into and peel apart slither by slither in order to obtain some understanding on that question: 'what is it to be human?' some search for a level of codification and regulated understanding that I know doesn't actual exist.

I watch people, (often without any prior motives!) I scribble in my journal, discuss and question with friends and family, observe and reflect on my professional experience, and through these experiences I have come to realised one of the fundamental points in helping answer this impossibly deep question, is the uncomfortable realisation that people are not agents of change. It has been a topic of my writing for some time, and determinism, is now the way I accept and view the world.

Taking this stance as a writer becomes something of a dilemma. After all, a protagonist must act in order to make decisions that influence the story. They must be that free agent of change, but when good characters are created on the 'whys' that forge them into tangible figures, how do you then allow them free agency? You could attempt a compatibilist approach, (understanding deterministic constraints on free will, but still accepting some level of free will), but a more reasonable answer is you don't create an active character at all.

All great characters are, instead, reactive. Their behaviour, like real people, is determined by their past and reaction to events in the present. It is the management of this reactive nature towards meaning that creates good fiction.

An author who isn't sympathetic to a consequentialist model of thinking, who doesn't accept that people are created by their reactions to events outside of their control, is not being true to their craft. Most importantly, this knowledge is not inventive: it is purely an understanding of the human condition, and the reactions of people to the contexts of life.

In this sense, writing is not so much creative as it is a written expression of knowledge within a narrative about how things, especially people, work. Therefore, the better the author, the less inventive they tend to be. Instead they draw on rich experiences of living and understanding to guide their stories towards sincere conclusions.

Of course the problem with this view is it's far less romantic, but an author must still select, place, and weave these deterministic strands to drive a story towards a logical yet meaningful conclusion.

In 2013 Gregory Currie wrote for the New York Times section 'The Stone'. His article asked whether great literature makes us better people. It's a question he tackles with a great degree of rationality and call for more study, but I must give a resounding yes on a less scientific basis. Not because of a novel's use as some didactic vehicle, but simply that, because of this inability to stray far from the reality of being, authors fictionalise individual deterministic models of life, and allow a reader to engage and understand more of the real trials and tribulations of others.

Great writing makes us more aware that we are all products of our environment for the most part, and great stories allow us a window into the lives of others whom we may never encounter, or lives that were never ours but could have been. Most of all, it stops us having to rely too much on the fallibility of our own often narrow point of reference. That in itself allows us a degree of empathy that is strained far too often in the face of the ever present dichotomy of 'us' and 'them'.

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