Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

CREATIVITY, QUALITY & TASTE

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Speaking as someone who has no imagination, I’m always annoyed to hear people natter on about “creativity.” If you’re a writer, creativity is a given. If you’re not a writer, you natter on about it all the time. Workshops and courses are given on the “creative process,” as if creativity were like learning how to make jam or drive a car. Depending on how much they cost, they are typically attended by widget-manufacturing executives or disaffected housewives.

Neophyte writers who catch the creativity bug are always starting something and finishing nothing. They have confused process and product: that doesn’t matter, because for them the process is everything. The same is true of someone who dashes something down and calls it a poem. Whoever initially uttered “first thought, best thought” — Allen Ginsberg? — coined the most misleading of maxims. Sometimes first thought is best, sometimes it’s worst. Or the best thought is the first thought’s exact opposite. In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether a text arrives in a fit of inspiration, or after near-endless revision. What matters is the text.

The intrusion of general or personal history doesn’t matter either. What makes Goran Simić’s poems and stories worth reading is not the fact that in person he is charming and funny. Nor should any worth be inferred by the fact that for three years he and his family endured the horrendous siege of Sarajevo. What makes his work worth reading is that, when everything is properly in motion, it is very good indeed. I think that Al Purdy is the best Canadian poet, and that some critics of his work miss the art that went into his seeming artlessness. I hope I did not reach that conclusion just because we were friends.

What further irritates me is the view that valuation of written work amounts to personal opinion. There are no objective standards. Everything that slides out of a printing press, pops up from a laser printer, or flashes across a monitor screen is of equal value because someone somewhere is bound to like it. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course, making art is egalitarian in the sense that anyone can try to do it. But it is also unegalitarian, because not everyone can do it well.

Taste and quality should be separate concepts. Instant mashed potatoes and Kraft Velveeta, I shamefacedly confess, are to my taste. That doesn’t mean I wish their quality on anyone. Someone may hate John Milton and love John Donne, but a sane person will admit that they are both remarkable poets. Lord Byron was a versification virtuoso, a genius, a much more attractive and interesting figure than William Wordsworth. But Wordsworth is the greater poet. That’s not just “my opinion.” Time, the final judge, is bearing me out. The passage of time embodies what’s said about a work at first reception, and what’s said about it in future. It’s an ongoing accumulative consensus, a moving point.

However, consensus is contingent on circumstances. If we agree on what were the great tragedies of Ancient Greece, it’s based on the evidence of the work that survived physical destruction. If the much larger quantity of works that perished or vanished had survived, we might think differently.

Here endeth the sermon.

***

I thank Open Book Toronto for inviting me to be Writer in Residence during July. To be one was a privilege and a pleasure. I also thank all those who, through a torrid month, took time away from tossing each other into a fountain to read my blogs — especially those who commented on them. You kept me from thinking I was preaching to a crowd of bits and bytes. If what I’ve written is any good, it’s by virtue of something André Gide said, quoted in a Hong Kong writers’ website on the page devoted to Reid Mitchell, a New Orleans novelist and historian:

"I have never produced anything good except by a long succession of slight efforts."

2 comments

Ah, Rasa, I thought that "disaffected" might arouse resistance in verbally sensitive souls like yourself. I used the adjective advisedly. One definition of "disaffected" is "dissatisfied with the people in authority and no longer willing to support them." In this case, "the people in authority" could be deemed husbands, and the flight to a creativity workshop might be construed as the woman's act of civil rebellion. A perfectly acceptable Women's Movement sentiment, I would have thought.

Creativity today has all the positive connotations that motherhood used to have. As you rightly say, creativity can be "nurtured or suppressed" in teaching -- and in many other walks of life. And certainly one would wish to promote settings in which it can be expressed. But in the case of writing, I suspect that creativity workshops belong to the realm of palliative psychotherapy,not professional advancement.

People who want to write will write. On request, I could supply you with the names of numerous female authors who, despite the exhausting drain of housework and childcare, found a way to get on with their work. They did it without resorting to inchoate maunderings about creativity. Such women deserve enormous credit.

Let me also add a word in defence of my own dumb-ox sex. The instances in which husbands have stomped on their wives' creativity are of course legion. But in my freelance editing work, I have usually found the opposite. My female clients' spouses may have been bemused, bewildered,uncomprehending, or just curmudgeonly, but I think it's fair to say that, in their blundering way,they genuinely wanted their wives to be happily fulfilled.

Many thanks for engaging with my gnomically expressed ideas.

While I deplore the somewhat sexist dismissal of anything attended by "disaffected housewives" (are women who are home raising children by definition precluded from any aspirations to creative work?), I do agree with the basic point here. As the post on Open Book about Margaret Atwood shows by its emphasis on who the author is and the need to recognize her face in a photo (!), often the product seems less important than the process or the processer.

Even in teaching (my profession), there can be a focus solely on the process by which students arrive at a desired result rather than the result itself. Especially in university research, there are internationally-held objective standards, and these do not depend on the character of the researcher, or his/her ability to be cooperative or to do work using the latest computer programs. That said, creativity, like intelligence, can be nurtured or suppressed, as every teacher has experienced, and it may be that those "housewives" simply need a setting in which their creativity is no longer suppressed.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Fraser Sutherland

At last count, Fraser Sutherland has published fifteen books: one of them short fiction, four nonfiction and ten poetry, His most recent poetry collection is The Philosophy of As If. A freelance editor, he may be the only Canadian poet who is also a lexicographer. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he lives in Toronto.

Go to Fraser Sutherland’s Author Page