Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Noncreative Fiction

Courtesy of Nils Axen
As I turned the corner onto Dryden Road and trudged through the Collegetown slush, hands in my pockets and cheeks huddled behind the neck of my jacket, the thought that materialized was not entirely my own: Hey, this reminds me of the cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Adjusting to that image, I hunched my back even more and forced an apathetic scowl (it looks better than wincing at every gust of Hoth-like wind). I then probably rattled off movies defined by their snow-swept settings: Fargo, The Shining, The Thing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Artists do not create from a blank state, a tabula rasa — or do they? After taking "Intro to Creative Writing" last semester and "Screenwriting I" this spring, I have come to appreciate the creative process, because damn, it doesn’t come easy to me. As you might pick up, I associate many things with works of music or cinema. Since picking up movie criticism as a hobby in my sophomore year of high school, I have hammered in critical thinking as my approach to art. This devotion to watching a wide range of films and breaking them down makes for a fun education, but, if this passion is not siphoned now and then to a more creative outlet, it sort of just stagnates. To me, brainstorming short stories or scripts takes much more effort than I believe it should, with intertextual references rather than original germs of thought dominating my cluttered thought processes.

This is a problem many must face, though, particularly those who try to phase out of the heavy academia they have entrusted in for so long in favor of making a mark of their own. While creative genius may not be teachable, format, parameters and allusions certainly are, which is why I take these courses here at Cornell, which is why anyone seeks out the masters of a craft and asks for advice and assistance. Right now, I see screenplays as an easy entrance into this world. They are not the final artistic product but the catalyst to future collaboration with other talented actors, cinematographers, editors and directors (the latter two of which I am most interested in pursuing, more so than writing).

The question of creativity — How to harness it? Where to point it? Do I have it? — intrigues me, as the answers, so far, have only peeked out of the shadows. According to Newtonian principles, pure creation is impossible, and this must apply to the creation of art, as well. If there was any “pure” artist, working in a void without any precedent, it was Homer when he babbled or bard-ed or whatever about Patroclus and Odysseus. But even Homer found inspiration from historical events and allowed his genius to fill in the rest. The creative process takes in far more information and experience than it puts out. An encyclopedic knowledge of some subsection of art assists greatly here; the filmmaker, painter or writer can amalgamate disparate past works, fuse them together and emerge with a “wholly original masterwork,” as some critic is likely to call it (In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco spoke of literature’s endlessly referential nature: “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told”). A keen, say, journalistic eye of the world around can provide that spark too, for, as Robert McKee harangues in the Charlie Kaufman-penned Adaptation, “People are murdered every day … People find love, people lose it … and if you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!”

There is a reason why the Academy Awards present two separate writing awards, one for Best Adapted Screenplay and the other for Best Original Screenplay. I don’t know what that reason is, but I’m sure there is one and that it has more to do with crediting logistics than quantifying creativity. The brilliant David Cronenberg has adapted William S. Burroughs and Don DeLillo into films that allow his directorial nuttiness to run amuck, while self-taught filmmakers like François Truffaut, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson sift through their expansive cinematic memories when writing and directing films that remain uniquely theirs. Even the most idiosyncratic movie makers like David Lynch or the Coen Brothers find inspiration in their own past (as the Coens do in A Serious Man) or through actively engaging with their subconscious (à la Lynch). Nobody pulls this stuff from thin air, basically. So, for now, I’ll continue to watch old movies while allotting time for other, more active outlets and perhaps a few more wintry strolls through Collegetown.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

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