Tag: creativity

The Spark of Life

There is something at the heart of every good story that makes it come alive. The flame in the lantern, the soul in the body, the crystal in an agate. A good story is like a child to its author–he made its existence possible, and to an extent he can predict what it will do, but it always goes to places he didn’t think it would go. It turns up in the kitchen, having drunk half a bottle of chocolate syrup, and then just grins at him. That’s the spark of life in a story; that taking off to an unexpected place is what makes a story come alive. Without the spark, it is only a collection of minerals arranged in a fine structure, with no faceted crystalline heart to make it lovely.

A good story is a beast. The author must approach it carefully, stalking with muffled feet and fistfuls of courage. It could leap up at any moment and bolt away, or do a jig, or spring for his throat. Some stories will consent to be tamed and go where the author leads. Others are bold and prefer to gallop this way and that as they please. Sometimes the author knows a story is too big for him, but he goes hunting it anyway. Other times he writes it because it seems easy, a tiny little thing–but the little things are always deceptively hard to catch.

Some stories don’t come into the world as beasts. They need to be coaxed to life by the author, who has just seen them as the faint and faded paintings that adorn the walls of ancient caves. At times life will come into the paintings of its own accord. They will begin to move and blink and step off the wall. The characters in the stories will look out at their authors and smile mysterious smiles. “We have hearts,” they’ll say, and the author, enchanted, must follow.

But at times the life doesn’t come. The author must find a way to put in the spark of life himself, not by singing into full bloom the seed that was already there, but by bringing it in from some outside source. This is very hard. There are many stories which are like a lantern, ornately carved by a fine craftsman, but which has no flame inside. A lantern, like a story, has a purpose, and without its flame that purpose will never come to fruition. How many stories have we all read which were like that lantern, with no life of their own and nothing to imprint themselves on our minds?

Still, there are certain things that the hunter after sparks may look for. These things bring the spark of life to a story: the enchanted air of the Perilous Realm, that breath of Faerie which comes out of the stories that touch on our deepest desires; the life and longings of another human being, unfolding before our eyes; the music of our deepest dreams, echoing from within the structure of the tale; the zest of relationships exuberantly lived on the page, as right and wrong unfold themselves in the lives of others. And there are many other things that bring life, but these are numerous and shadowy, defined only within the heart of each person who seeks solace in a story.

It is a powerful magic, to coax the life into a story. But if that is not done, if the author is weak or the story was never anything more than a bit of pigment smeared across a wall, then its only fate will be to fade off into the fog of unreality.

~ Jared

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On Reading and Watching

Recently, I have been thinking about the difference between reading stories and watching them, and how our own inborn creativity takes part in our experience of story. There are two basic kinds of storytelling, which I will call picture-storytelling and word-storytelling. Picture-storytelling includes movies, TV shows, comic books, and anything else that tells a story through a primarily visual medium. Word-storytelling, on the other hand, consists of stories told without the aid of pictures, whether they are written down or verbalized. Both of these types of storytelling seem to be more or less as old as humanity. All you have to do is look at Stone Age cave paintings and take a few moments to consider our languages to realize that. Both types have their own place and their own advantages. However, I think that word-storytelling is the better of the two, and that picture-storytelling especially has fallen into decay in modern times. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the value of movies and comics and the skill and creativity that goes into making them. I very much enjoy picture-storytelling and our world would be a poorer place without it. However, I don’t think it can be denied that stories which are told purely in words give our minds more work to do, especially when compared with the modern forms of picture-storytelling, which leave little or nothing to the imagination. Sight is our primary sense. Fill up that sense, and suddenly the brain has little left to create. Deny it, and the brain must manufacture an entire world.

 

The difference


 

Here is what I believe to be the fundamental difference between picture-stories and word-stories, and also between the Modern, and the Medieval or Ancient forms of picture-storytelling. Stories told in words (whether they be books or your grandfather’s tall tales) require audience participation–imagination–in order to work. Stories told in pictures do not. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. When a movie is playing, you really don’t have to pay much attention to it to absorb its story. Everything that you need to know is presented on-screen; the images to see are given you; the words to hear are all there and spoken by unique voices. The only thing lacking is smell and touch, and I’m sure that sometime in the relatively near future, virtual reality will have advanced enough to add those senses into picture-storytelling, as well. You do not have to participate in order to “take in” the story. It is all given to you.

Now consider a book. If you are to get anything out of a book, you must let yourself sink into it. You must actively use the words on the page to construct whatever they’re describing in your own mind. A book tells its story in collaboration with the reader. We don’t often think of this, because we’re so used to reading that we don’t stop to consider what we’re actually doing. But stop and consider it. You don’t have pictures of every character and setting. You don’t have different people speaking aloud all the dialog so that you can hear it. You must create all that in your mind–and a well-written book will also prompt you to create details of scent and touch (a thing which films very rarely do). Word-stories are like a game of telephone. The author must very carefully choose what to leave out and what to put in, in order to describe the scene which exists in his mind. Then he transfers it to the page or the empty air, and he must hope that he succeeded well enough, though most of the time he knows that he’s fallen short. Then you read or hear those words, and the scene is transferred once again, but this time into your own mind. Then you must must decode the author’s words and try to find his original vision of the scene. That is what we do when we read or listen to a story being told.

 

The importance of the difference


 

This decoding and re-creation of story is essential to its value. Storytellers need to embrace it. Of course, very often the reader will not be successful in properly decoding the author’s words. Some authors are afraid of their vision being distorted, and so they describe everything excessively in the hope that their readers will see exactly what they did. But that is a trap. It is precisely the uncertain aspect of word-storytelling, that it must be interpreted by the listener or reader, that is its beauty. That’s why reading is such a wonderful experience. Every story is different depending on who is reading it. Each reader brings his own background, his own understanding, his own context–his own way of seeing the world–and makes the story anew in his mind.

The human mind needs a creative outlet to be healthy. We are made in the image and likeness of God; as Tolkien would say, we are made to be sub-creators, modeling His great act of creation with our own smaller imitations. Not all of us have the skill to create great works of art, but anyone in full possession of his wits and senses can read or listen to a story and imagine it unfolding in his head. He can create it in his mind, using the words of another for a guide. Throughout our history we have told stories to each other, and through them we have been able to extend the ability to create to anyone willing to take it.

Recall how I said that the difference of participation exists also between Modern picture-storytelling, and Ancient or Medieval picture-storytelling. In the old days, the pictures were so greatly abstracted that they forced their viewers to use a good deal of imagination to understand their meaning. An iconographic painting is nearly as vague as a literary description, though the vagueness comes in a different way. When viewing this kind of story, the mind is turned not towards the pictures themselves, but towards what they represent. Now consider the Modern era. Picture storytelling has become incredibly widespread, and it has changed. No longer are the pictures abstract, stylized, and symbolic; now they are made to look real. More and more is shown, and less and less is left to the imagination. Another difference between now and the old days is that picture-storytelling has become most people’s primary exposure to story, whereas before, that exposure came predominantly from word-storytelling. There are people alive today who never read books! And it seems that we are mostly past the age when people would verbally tell each other myths and fairytales. Verbal storytelling today seems largely prosaic and lacking in the level of creativity which characterized it in the old days. Modern people still use stories as a lifeline when they have either no time to create art, or jobs which are oppressive and dehumanizing. But many of them only consume stories, in the form of movies and television, instead of participating in stories, in the form of novels and verbal tales. Modern picture-storytelling has largely lost the creative element that makes story an effective lifeline. For stories to truly be a lifeline, they must be of the sort that allows people to create through them, that allows people to exercise that vital creative part of their minds, instead of covering it with a blur of lights and noise.

 

Reclaiming imagination


 

We are at our most human when we are creating, when we are giving of ourselves, when we pour out our hearts and forget our personal pettiness. This is one reason why reading books and listening to tales can be so wholesome. Because word-storytelling is intrinsically creative when experienced by the reader or listener, it enables us to access that deeply creative part of ourselves. Consistent enjoyment of word-stories, therefor, can teach us how better to worship: for true, deep worship, where the heart and soul cry out to God and all else is forgotten, is a very creative thing. Word-storytelling trains up and strengthen our imaginations. Consider that God asks us to give our whole selves to Him–and that the whole self includes the imagination. An example of just one of the myriad ways in which worship can be creative is the Catholic tradition of contemplative prayer. This sort of prayer emphasizes (among other things) gazing into the eyes of Jesus, envisioning His Holy Face and basking in the love that radiates from it. How is that possible if we do not use our imaginations, as they are consecrated and strengthened when offered up to Our Lord? And how are we to make a good offering of our imaginations if they are atrophied from lack of use?

Thus, the fostering of imagination through word-storytelling is essential. It is fundamentally different from the fostering of imagination that happens even through good picture-storytelling that still gives us room for our own visions. It is of a higher order because it is so much more all-encompassing. It is harder to embrace, but better for the soul. Word-storytelling is good for the heart and good for the mind, in a way that picture-storytelling can never be, no matter how good the story is. And if we are to reclaim the power of our imaginations, and the potential for deep, creative worship contained therein, then we must never stop reading.

 

Peace!

~ Jared

The Value of Writing Poetry

So I have kind of a funny relationship with poetry. I never really understood it as I was growing up, and because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t like it. I thought it was silly and worthless and couldn’t imagine why anyone would care to read or write it. (I was a very silly child and held that opinion about a lot of things) I did eventually grow out of that narrow view, but for years poetry still wasn’t really “on my radar”. Even after I started writing stories, I hardly thought about it. It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I made my first attempt at writing poetry, but ever since I’ve been in love with it. It’s a wonderful thing! Good poetry can express what nothing else can, not prose or a painting or anything. Poetry is, I think, the closest we can come to truly speaking our hearts. But, more than that, writing poetry is an extremely valuable exercise for writers and non-writers alike. I think I’ve said on this blog before that I think everyone ought to write. I’m going to amend that statement: I think everyone ought, not just to write, but also to write poetry.

Now, a lot of people might protest. They might say that their poetry is awful, that they have no talent for it and no one would ever want to read it. But that isn’t the point. Even if your poetry is truly awful, I think there can still be benefit in it for at least one person–for you, the writer. Of course, ultimately, we must strive to write poetry that can be enjoyed by many people, but to start with, entertaining yourself isn’t bad.

One of the most obvious benefits of writing poetry, for anyone, is that it can be a great help for working through tricky emotions. Writing about any difficult, emotional subject can be a helpful way to order your thoughts and feelings, and writing about it in poetic language can be extremely cathartic, because poetry is such a good way to express those emotions. Poetry also helps you to look at the world differently, to see more of the pattern and rhythm in it–and the attention that you have to pay to finding precise descriptions of things in your poems can bring out the beauty of the world around you in a whole new way, because you start to notice more.

For people who also write prose (and especially fiction), writing poetry has even more benefits. It will help you learn to be concise. It will help you learn to pick just the right images and descriptions to convey an emotion or meaning. The rigors of writing with rhyme and meter will not only help to give your prose a nicer flow and a more rhythmic sound, they will help you to get a better grasp of the language. The very tight restrictions of many forms of poetry (especially the more traditional forms) are probably the most useful thing I’ve found to help me learn to make better use of English, in addition to being a lot of fun in their own right. Almost as useful is poetry that eschews traditional forms and uses your own, self-imposed guidelines, because that teaches you to do on a small scale what you must do over the course of an entire novel, if you want to keep everything properly in line with itself.

In short, poetry, besides being beautiful and excellent all on its own, is also very useful for all kinds of people, I think that everyone ought to cultivate a habit of writing it–even they aren’t very good and never show their poetry to anyone. There are many more benefits besides what I’ve written down here. Try it yourself, and see!

~ Jared

Creative Breakthroughs

Hello, everyone! Been awhile since my last post. I guess I don’t really have anything major to say this time, but I thought I would share some recent breakthroughs I’ve had in my writing/creative life. The first one is very obvious and I can’t imagine why I never thought of it sooner. It is a realization I had about daydreaming.

 

I’ve always liked to daydream. That’s practically a qualification of being a writer, isn’t it? Daydreaming is not only fun, it’s very important. A writer needs that imaginative time to create new things and get to know his worlds and characters better. But somewhere down the line, I reached a point where I felt like I couldn’t daydream anymore. It cost me huge amounts of effort to envision my stories and characters, and I could rarely keep myself focused on a daydream for very long. This was extremely distressing and it made me feel like I was less of a writer than my friends. Many–probably most–of my writer friends, including one of my closest friends in the world, daydream without even trying. It comes naturally to them. They just find themselves drifting off and don’t even notice what’s happening in the world around them. I’d reached the point where that never happened to me anymore, at least not for stories. Sure, sometimes I’d daydream about future possibilities, but I could never do it about my imaginary world. Last week, I realized why. Aside from various emotional distractions, the reason is because I was doing it wrong. I had been trying to visualize everything, as if I were in a movie–build the scene from the ground up, see the expressions on the characters’ faces, hear their voices as they talked, or else imagine myself as one of them. But my mind doesn’t naturally think in images. I am one of those people who thinks most often in words; I have a constant inner monologue, accompanied by a (usually) hazy stream of images and deep currents of feelings for the things I can’t describe in words. Many of my friends who I’d been comparing myself to, on the other hand, think primarily with images and feelings, not with direct words. And so, it was only natural that I would have a hard time daydreaming the way they did, because my mind doesn’t work the same. Once I had that realization, I began to daydream in words instead of images, as if I were writing in my head. And it worked. The words swept me away and images and feelings followed on their heels without me even having to try to envision them. At the time I felt rather calm about the whole thing. It was such an obvious realization to come to that I’m still not quite sure why I never understood that before. But I’m excited now! I’m eager to see how my creative life expands now that I’ve realized the way my mind is meant to daydream.

 

The other breakthrough is more of an intellectual breakthrough: I finally stated to myself, in words, in a way I could describe, a vision for my stories and writing. Not all of my stories do or will fit this vision–I will write whatever sounds interesting to me, whether it fits the vision or not. It isn’t exactly something I would call a grand purpose. It’s more of a guiding light. Something to shoot for in my stories. I know that if I’m accomplishing this, the story has been successful on at least one level, even if it fails in others. It’s a comfort to me to have this abstract idea to shoot for, even if I’m not trying to make all my stories conform to it.

 

The vision is this: that I want to bring magic into the everyday. I want to show, with my stories, how magical the mundane world can be, and conversely, how mundane magic sometimes is. I want to inject wonder into things that are not thought to have wonder. I want to throw a veil of mystery back over things that have been made all too clear in the glaring light of reason and pragmatism. Because it is my belief that the veil was never truly torn away, only x-rayed, and if you look closely enough, the mystery and magic will return to anything.

 

That is all. Vale!

 

~ Jared

Creative Itching, A Life Update, and the Evil of Corporations

Hello, gentlefolk of the internet! Today I am experiencing a creative itch. It’s been there for about a week and it is very persistent, teasing me with vague glimpses of some deep, dark, wondrous place. But every time I try to capture it, it flits away. This happens to me on a pretty regular basis, and I’m sure any other creatives know what I’m talking about. It’s really quite annoying. I can’t even tell myself “wait and see,” because it isn’t uncommon for these fleeting visions to disappear and never return, with no explanation, when the creative itch finally dies away. Frustrating. I really want to create–to write something or to draw something–but I don’t know what to create. So, I told myself, at least I’ll write a blog post.

 

I guess I’ll share a short life update for anyone who cares. Quite recently–almost two weeks ago–I lost my job, and then got a new and much better one a few days later. I had been searching for a new job for a long time, because my old one had ceased to be a viable way to support myself and I hated it in any case. But I’d been hoping that I could leave my old job on my own terms, once I’d found something better, instead of being fired from it before I had a backup in place. But things worked out all right.

 

I’ve really felt a weight lifted from me since I got this new job. You see, aside from the obvious financial strain I was under, I was also working in retail–a corporate-owned office supply store which I’m sure you’ve heard of. For many reasons I was unsuited to this job, in no small part because I am a quiet person who does not dispense friendship readily or immediately and is easily stressed by forced dealings with strangers. But more than that–I hated the lack of respect and courtesy I received as an employee of this place. It was nothing blatantly wrong or truly terrible. Just things which were indicative of an underlying attitude which really shouldn’t be acceptable. For example, I was never told ahead of time when the store’s schedule changed for some reason. I was never asked if I would be able to work the new schedule; it was just expected that I would force my life around it. Then, too, there is the way the employees are expected to suck up to the customers, to be subservient and promise them anything they ask as long as it is remotely within the boundaries of what the store can do. I don’t believe it’s appropriate to act this way; it creates a false expectation and fosters a really deplorable attitude of entitlement in the customer, besides the obvious moral stumbling point of promising something which you aren’t sure if you can carry out. My manager once came perilously close to asking me to be dishonest. This shows little regard for the beliefs or personality of the individual. In fact, the individual is enormously undervalued in this setting; no matter how often the store propaganda tells you that you’re valuable, you know deep down that you’re expendable and the store is what really matters.  It is my understanding that that sad condition is common to modern industry.

 

I’m sure people will say: that’s just the way the world works! (as if that weren’t the most terrible excuse for anything ever) Or they might say, they have a business to run, and seeing as there are plenty of people who would take your job if they could, you really are expendable.  (as if that should cover a clearly undesirable state of affairs) Others may say that I should keep a stiff upper lip and I have no right to complain when children are forced to spend 12 hour days mining coal in certain unsavory institutions around the world. (should a man not complain of stepping on a nail when another man has just had a leg sheared off?) But I would argue that, whether this is a great evil or not, it is still wrong and it still points to further problems in modern society. The devaluation of the individual is truly disheartening. It is perhaps easiest to see in a corporate environment, but it is still pervasive–and this despite persistent propaganda about the importance of being one’s self, “believing in yourself,” and other such twaddle. As children we are told to follow our dreams and believe in ourselves. But when we become adults, the tune changes to “cut that hair! Wear that suit! Be practical! Work that stifling corporate job and have financial security!” In other words, be like everyone else, because the collective knows best. And even when a company claims to place great value on the unique contributions of each employee, there is still a deeper societal norm that they are all following, and this norm is a trend towards deindividuation.

 

We are men and women, full of color and life, eternal beings, not insects to be tiny, insignificant cogs in one great hive. And it’s sickening to see the collective spirit so heavily championed at every turn.

 

Well, and that turned into a little more of a rant than I intended it to. Suffice to say, I am very happy to be free–for the moment–from the world of corporations and retail! And I do hope never to return.

 

~ Jared

 

P.S. While writing this, I remembered an idea I’d had for something to draw. Well then, I suppose writing a blog post was a good choice!

Sub-Creation

I am having thoughts today. Isn’t it wonderfully beautiful, how humans can create things? Isn’t it wonderful how we can mimic God? I think that one of the highest things a human can do is to create something beautiful. To make art. To sub-create, pour out the wondrous creative energy of God that resonates through all time into our own, flawed, incredible creations. It’s one of the holiest of things. I’m in awe of the creative power I’ve been blessed with. I have to use it. I have to create. If I don’t then I’m denying my greatest gift. I want to live my life doing nothing but sub-creating, and shaping, and working magic.

 

But then I’m always faced with the harsh reality that this creative gift is not so highly prized by the world. That I can’t just sit in my basement creating beautiful things. That’s worship. It’s spiritual communion. But it doesn’t pay any bills. And that fact is so incredibly frustrating. The best thing I can do doesn’t give me anything to live off of in our terribly money-shackled society. But some people can live off their creating. I want–need–to be one of those people.

 

It’s just so hard to be noticed, and I’m deathly afraid that I never will be, and I’ll be stuck never being able to fulfill my purpose of creating. I think the fear is hindering me. Making it harder for me to step out. It’s like a wall. I’ll have to siege it. Can I have some Ents?

 

Anyway. I feel that sub-creating connects us to God. It’s an expression of our souls and an imitation of Him. It connects us into this divine continuum of power and growth and revival, building up and magic and birth. It is so. Brilliantly. Beautiful. And good.

 

Words fail me.

 

~ Jared