Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Uncertainties of Creation

Every year, tens of thousands of novels and screenplays are written, tens of thousands of songs are recorded, and hundreds of independent films are shot, often funded by credit cards.
With high hopes for recognition and perhaps fame and wealth, the creators send their best work into the dispassionate maw of the Next Big Thing Machine: the talent and literary agents, the publishers, the film festivals, and the media, which now includes the Web.

Of this vast outpouring of creativity, a few thousand novels will be chosen for publication, a few hundred movies will be made, a few dozen indie films will be selected for distribution, and a few hundred musical offerings will be picked up by the major labels. The rest will be self-distributed in relative obscurity, or gather dust; most will rest in boxes until the creators relinquish their hopes, or move, or die, and then their best work, the stuff dreams are made of, to steal a great line, is carted off to the dump.

Understandably, this isn't what you're told in film school or Creative Writing programs. But nonetheless it is the truth. Occasionally some work rises from obscurity to recognition of genius at a later date (almost always after the creator dies in abject poverty, tortured by failure), but few of the hundreds of thousands of books, screenplays, songs, plays, paintings and other artwork created every year will enjoy this belated success.

So why do people persist in creating works which will never find an audience, much less appreciation? To pursue a dream, of course; hundreds of thousands of boys dream of rising to the elite ranks of the NFL or the NBA, their hopes obscuring the grindingly poor odds of joining a group of several hundred in a nation of 300 million. Others dream of other flavors of elite success: on the stage, in Hollywood, on concert tours, in literary circles.

This is an essential part of human nature: to dream, to hope and to create. Just as Schumpeter's "creative destruction" lies at the heart of innovation and wealth creation, so creative failure lies at the heart of the Next Big Thing's relentless winnowing.

There's another reason: because they have to. My friend of 37 years Gary Baker recommended the film American Splendor to me last year, insisting I see it. Now, I recommend it to you, not just as an engaging and innovatively told story, but for its depiction of a person who can't help but doodle/write/create, despite the long odds of success and his own personal eccentricities.

As Gary told me after I'd seen the film: the guy had to create. It wasn't for fame or glory or wealth (this individual worked as a file clerk for the Veterans Administration his entire career)--it's because he had no choice. This is the heart of the story, and the heart of the process. If you really have no choice, then you create not by struggling but by opening the floodgates of what fountains up within you, unbidden.

Will everyone who has no choice be blessed with success? No, just as not every pretty girl will be discovered by a talent agent while waiting in line at a supermarket. (Yes, that happens, too.) Luck is always in play, as is timing. The mood of the era and audience can suddenly change, and those who found every door slammed in their faces for years (think Andy Warhol) are suddenly famous beyond anyone's imagination, the toast of the town and indeed the world.

From this perspective, there is nothing sad about the creations which will never be read, or heard, or seen; just as a tree throws off millions of seeds and only a few seedlings sprout and grow to maturity, so it is with the arts, and indeed all human invention.

I should confess here that I completed two novels this year, after years of what passes for labor. (That is, the sort of fun which requires discipline and effort.) The odds of either being published are vanishingly small, and even if that great hurdle should be leaped, then the odds of either book finding an audience is even smaller. This is reality, and if this sober reality causes any hesitation in the creator--well, perhaps it isn't something you must do.

I must also confess to being worn out by the process of writing several hundred thousand words this past five months, plus cobbling together this site and doing the work I do to pay the bills. Like many of you, I arise early and work late; but unlike you, I am a complete idiot, and do so mostly without pay. Why? Because I have to, I guess. There's no other explanation for such supreme idiocy.

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