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How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark

I spent much of the last weekend live-tweeting from Weird Council, an academic convention on the writing of China Mieville. Many clever people were in attendance, many clever things were said. I only understood about half of them but felt quite good about getting that much. As a good friend of mine says, if more than four other experts in the world understand what you are saying you are not a real academic.

Throughout the day I saw occasional tweets from writers wondering how all these complicated theories about literature combined with the actual act of creative writing. And I believe that is a perfectly valid concern. Most writers recognise that it isn’t the intellectual bit of their brain that writes a great novel or short story. That comes from an imaginative spark. And anyone who writes knows that too much intellectualising can snuff that spark right out.

But nonetheless, all that theory stuff can actually be pretty useful. Science Fiction is sometimes called a conversation. The ideas that writers have developed over the decades are contributions to that conversation. If you don’t know what’s been said before, you risk being the chap walking in to the middle of a discussion and saying what everyone else already said an hour ago. Theory can help bring you up to date with where that conversation is. And this isn’t just true of SF but for any form of creative expression. And theory can also help to spark fantastic and original ideas, if you learn to use it without letting it use you.

When you engage with theory as an artist, you have to resist the powerful temptation to try and be right. Theory often presents itself as an argument, and demands that you take a side. It’s the job of the academic to have that argument, because from the dialectical process of two or more opposing positions debating, new knowledge can be discovered and tested. But that process can be death to the artist. Be curious, ask questions. Enjoy the novel ideas theory can offer. But don’t take a side. Don’t get sucked in to the argument. And don’t try and be right.

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2 thoughts on “How to work with theory without snuffing out your creative spark”

  1. Shrug. Some artists think a great deal about what they do, and do it; some just do it. Some think about fundamentals of craft, some about existential issues of art, some about the small details, some hardly at all. It’s not much related to quality or even to intellectual depth of the work; it’s just different ways of working.

    Me, I like to think, always, about issues like how a reader makes a story out of sentences, and where the actual pleasure comes from, and why we don’t see some things that have obvious power or we constantly see things we think of as sorta limp. It pushes me to try the sorts of experiments that some readers hate the way that many people hate the chef screwing around with breakfast, and some readers read me for, and an amazing number of people don’t notice. Keeps me in the chair, typing, though.

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