On Creation

Because I have a Korean test to study for, today’s NaCreSoMo post isn’t going to be directly creative but instead talking about creativity.1 There’s plenty of precedent for this in Rebecca’s (Elephants on Trapezes) and Candace’s (Reading Redhead) posts so far, and listening to Vienna Teng’s songwriting diaries confirmed that it was the right direction to go for today’s (long) post.2

I tried to take a cue from Abby (Life From Third Place) and mix things up by writing this post in third person, but it got really dramatic and didn’t actually convey the point I wanted to get across, so…

When we were kids my brother and I used to make up worlds together. The exact form these worlds took different from instance to instance, but the common thread is that they were almost always fanfiction of some kind: the things we made were set in the universes of Star Wars, Escape Velocity, Golden Sun,3 Warcraft and StarCraft, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. We made plans for prequels, sequels, and expansions; we sketched out tech trees, maps, and unit lists. We created card games and board games, some of which were actually fun to play, and which we continued to play for a few years even after we’d let the franchise go.

These collaborations often had a fairly standard arrangement: I was the ordinologist, making charts and lists and keeping everything as plausible and balanced as possible, while my brother was the artist, both literally (in that I made him fill in portraits for every unit in our Warcraft III expansion) and figuratively, coming up with the ideas that made the world different.

I don’t want to say that the division there was absolute, though it stayed as was with the typical imbalanced relationship of older and younger brother. But at times it was striking to me how different our approaches were. Though I could write stories in our worlds, borrowing tropes and styles from the books I was reading, my brother’s stories were completely different. Yes, he was younger, but he seemed to have no problem juxtaposing the description of a large-scale space battle (with seemingly-arbitrary details thrown in) with a peaceful visit to Earth and the childlike protagonist being fascinated by an elevator.

(Actually, thinking about it now, many real science fiction books capitalize on exactly this sort of unlikely contrast. So maybe it’s not a great example. But my brother’s elementary school stories did it without being aware of it.)

The episode that stands out the most, though, is when my brother started including short phrases in a language made up for the aliens in his story. The whole thing seemed to be entirely in his head. I was fascinated by this, and jumped on it—on him—trying to figure out how deeply it went. At this point in time my brother didn’t know any other languages; I myself had only studied a little Spanish and possibly had just started Japanese (can’t remember which year it was).

Again, I was fascinated by this. I started writing down a dictionary, or perhaps a phrasebook, including every instance of the language that appeared in his few stories and the few words he’d drop outside of that. I asked how the grammar worked, trying to make leading questions out of it when my crude interrogation failed to elicit any meaningful responses.

This whole thing lasted for a few days, perhaps a week, during which I think I drove my brother to frustration and probably contributed to his eventually getting bored of this particular world. Looking back, one of the interesting things was how I assumed his made-up language had rules, and equally interesting is how I’m still fairly convinced it actually did. As a kid I got frustrated when he refused to give me any more words or translations; later I realized that I had very quickly reached the edge of the language that he was coming up with on demand, and asking him to produce words was no fun for him.

You probably know that I remained interested in and fascinated by languages; I’ve continued to take language classes through today, my focus within Computer Science is programming languages and source code tools, and I ended up becoming a Linguistics minor at UC Berkeley. There’s another aspect to this story, though, which is about the Creation.

I said before that what we made was usually fanfiction. It was my brother, though, who came up with most of the original stuff, while I often worked with the existing world. When I wrote fanfiction on my own, I mostly just mixed in tropes from the genre and constructed a story from that.

Which is fine, and fun, and all that. As I got older my creations became more original, although many of them still used an existing world, concept, or structure as a starting point. At some point you get to call those “inspiration” instead of “original canon”, but there’s still a lingering feeling of derivation there (even though All Stories Are Derivative, the subject of another future blog post and also what makes TV Tropes continually relevant). Making mashups is another case of being derivative: I do believe I’m adding value in making the mashup, not just piggybacking on the popularity of the other two songs, but it’s clearly a “creation” that is fully dependent on the existing material that went into it.

Even my primary “talent”, writing computer programs, often feels more like arrangement or “plumbing” than creation: connecting two systems that each do part of what I want to make the whole thing do something useful. This isn’t as true anymore4, but this is one of the (several) reasons why I never charged for any of the software I made on my own before joining Apple. It wasn’t sufficiently original; anyone could have done it.5

With fiction I think I’m finally standing (wobbling) on my own two feet when it comes to being original. Besides having written several standalone pieces, informed by genre but not solely defined by it, I’ve occasionally achieved that writing flow state where you’re not coming up with things anymore but merely transcribing them, because it’s obvious what comes next.

When you’re doing it right, scenes will write themselves almost literally. And I mean it: you can have an idea of what’s going to happen by the time character A leaves the room, but character A might have a different idea! My most memorable example of this came during my first NaNoWriMo: the main character was eating breakfast with his roommate when his roommate’s girlfriend sat down at the table. Until that sentence came to my mind, I had no idea the roommate had a girlfriend. But that was very obviously what happened next. When you get those flow-state moments, it’s almost like writing down events in a story you already know, rather than creating something new. But in a good way.

(from an old post of mine called “Character-Based Stories”)

This is the state (I think) Vienna Teng is describing in her songwriting diaries, and it’s actually similar to the state I’m in when I have a programming solution in mind but haven’t put it down on paper in code yet. And I wonder if this was the state my brother was in in elementary school when he made up a world, a culture, a language.

And some people (again, my brother) can do this with visual art, taking a mythical creature or character and drawing them in an entirely new pose, from an entirely new angle, while people like me can’t even draw something from reference. And yet, I wonder if they would say that the piece was truly “original”, or a “transcription” of a scene that just was that way in their head…or just as much an “arrangement” as my mashups, since they merely took existing material, composed it in a new way, and released the result to the world via their pencil.

“That’s just how it is.” It’s a wonderful feeling, and yet it’s interesting. You can be proud of a work of art—of anything you create. But somehow, these gems defy ownership. They’ve come through you, rather than from you, and on some level to take credit for them feels like missing the point.

I think this is what true Creation feels like.

But maybe it’s just me.

P.S. As Rebecca (Elephants on Trapezes) pointed out in “Song-Smithery”, performance is an act of creation, as is drawing from reference, producing a song, or ghostwriting a novel. If All Stories Are Derivative, then it stands to reason that the way we make them original is by adding meaning and inflection to what’s already there. You can play a pitch at 440Hz, but it’s the overtones added on top that make it human.

  1. Who am I kidding…it’s not like this post is going to be any quicker than my usual creative works. ↩︎

  2. The songwriting diaries are what got Danielle (Kremlin Mirrors) into NaCreSoMo just a few days ago. ↩︎

  3. A moment for our Golden Sun prequel, Alchemy’s End. It took place hundreds of years before the first game, and you played the ancestors of the villains of the original game, trying to stop the unleashed power of Alchemy from destroying the world. It was much better than Dark Dawn. ↩︎

  4. This isn’t as true anymore since I’m one of three or four people, anywhere, who has intimate experience with almost all parts of my current project, the Clang Static Analyzer↩︎

  5. Some did; only one of my “products” never had any real competition, and that one was eventually obsoleted by Apple itself. ↩︎