07 November 2022

Creativity. Damned it you do, damned if you don't.

Creative work often presents itself as pure invention, when in fact, it’s merely a reconstitution of existing forms.  These are successful forms, which is why writers, editors and publishers produce this work by the trainload.  One only needs to see a lot of blockbuster movies, listen to commercial radio and read thick airline-oriented thrillers to know this is true.  There is tremendous comfort in diving into the familiar.  Like that cardboard container of MacDonalds French fries, you know what you’re going to get, and you can’t wait to get at it.

I’m totally down with this.  I read Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Rex Stout because they’re a known commodity.  Important for me, they’re also really good at it.  They know how to maintain a familiar rhythm and context, while introducing just enough surprise and variety to keep the stories interesting.  Also true with some of my favorite TV shows, recently Shetland and Longmire. 

The hang up is that without genuine creativity – offering ideas, themes and plot structures that have never been tried before – the whole art form will eventually die of arterial sclerosis.  It becomes boring, dulling the senses and deflating like a tired old balloon. 

Here enters risk vs. reward.  Most fresh ideas fail.  It’s the cruel reality of biological evolution, that it takes thousands of beings to produce that one mutation that will improve the life prospects of a particular species.  Contrary to common wisdom, publishers are always looking for that one big idea that will transform the industry, and their financial well-being, but in the process kill more nascent innovations than a blue whale scooping up krill. 

Most artists succeed, in the sense of wide recognition and good pay days, because they remind us of what we already know.  But occasionally, someone rips up orthodoxy and shows us something so wonderfully different that we can’t resist assimilating the fresh mutation.  As to TV shows, I’m thinking The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.  Philip K. Dick was so unceasingly creative that his work inspired some of the finest sci-fi movies ever made.  Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the modern detective story.  James Joyce invited readers into the consciousness of his characters in a way that permanently altered the literary arts.   

This is why we need what Steve Jobs called the crazy ones (Philip K. Dick and Vincent Van Gogh were certifiably mentally ill, but that’s not exactly what he meant.)  Business folklore is full of risktakers, iconoclasts, scruffy revolutionaries working out of their parents’ garage.  The ones we know about were not only prolific idea machines, they were also inured against the effects of failure, or had the persistence to fail forward, to keep screwing up until something finally clicked. 

A breakthrough requires two distinct capabilities.  One to come up with the idea, the other to introduce it to the world.  As a practical matter, I think the latter takes the greater risk.  When I was in advertising, I’d remind my fellow creatives that if our campaign fails, we might lose an account, but our partners who worked inside the client companies could lose their jobs.  Creative people tend to dismiss the sensibilities of the money people, but when a half million books get remaindered, they aren’t the ones typing up their resumes. 

Humans are biologically programmed to avoid risk, otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it out of the Pleistocene.  This is why a truly fresh idea is often met with skepticism, if not outright fear.  We also learned in advertising how to somewhat overcome this natural reaction, but at the end of the day, it simply took a lot of guts and faith in the power of originality. 

I once wrote a line for a stock photo company that wanted to encourage their clients to take greater risks by supporting more pioneering photography.  I think it equally applies to the writers, editors and publishers of mystery fiction.

“There is nothing so difficult to create, so delightful to render, or so dangerous to defend, as a new idea.


  1. Agree with you 100%, Chris. I have my favorite formula authors, like everyone else. But oh, when you run across something absolutely fresh and original! Wow!

  2. Great post, Chris, and I also agree. Familiarity feels safe, which is something we can all use to our advantage with a big plot twist, right?

    Being an English teacher for years made it harder for me to appreciate and welcome new forms and styles (although I experimented a lot with Shakespeare, when I directed his plays in theater), but now I love the occasional Let's-Ride-This-Puppy-Off-The-Rails experiment. Stephen Graham Jones comes to mind, and maybe Walter Mosley's more recent works. And I'm becoming more open to works from other cultures, especially Asian, where the sense of Time is so fluid...

  3. We so often see this in television, promising new series that taper off, resort to SOS (soap-opera shite) or jump-the-shark, find themselves copied, run out of ideas, and die. Did the gorgeous Miami Vice have more than five or six plots?

    S S Van Dine said no author had more than six good novels, and then he went on to prove it. I greatly enjoyed Alistair MacLean, but his last few novels (mostly set in North America) trickled away. I can think of one author whose work became worse than farcical. Maybe Agatha Christie had the right idea– write one’s last novel before it’s the last novel.

  4. I know, Leigh - I think it's long been time for Death in Paradise to call it a wrap - how many more white genius detectives with weird quirks can they send to that island, anyway? And they kept New Tricks (one of my favorite police detective shows of all time) on at least 1 season too long. There comes a time to call it a wrap.

  5. Great post, Chris. So true!


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