This week we had a little incident at home in which my middle son delivered a burn worthy of an arsonist.
It was bedtime, and it’s been years since I’ve read my kids bedtime stories, or sang them bedtime songs, or performed more of a bedtime ritual than giving each one of them a backrub and well-wishes for peaceful slumber. But on this bedtime, Jack demanded a fable.
“Can you tell me a fable about why I should go to sleep?”
“Yes. A fable like this one: ‘Once upon a time…’ ” And he launched into a Proper Fable about that very thing. (By the way, props to whoever is doing the Fables unit at school.) Then he wrapped it all up and challenged me again. “Can you tell a fable better than the one I just told?”
“Well, probably not.”
I was too concerned with being honest to notice that he’d been verbally stacking dry tinder around me for the previous three minutes… until he tossed the lit match.
“Well, Mom,” he said, “it’s a shame your creativity burned out thirty years ago.”
I told myself that my degree wasn’t in Drama, or Theater Performance, or Improvisation. But, as a matter of fact, I have a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and in English Literature. I’ve been telling people for years, with a wink and a smile, that I have a degree in Making Things Up.
So why can’t I just make up a bedtime story?
One answer is that I don’t practice storytelling. I’m not a verbal person; my voice doesn’t command attention, and my spoken word goes unheard in large groups. If I am drafted to stand behind the microphone and say a piece I will do my duty, but I don’t enjoy it or feel comfortable doing it. Even reading a storybook to a classroom of kids of any age typically ends in disaster: I’m not interesting enough, the kids’ attention wanders, and the teacher gets hoarse from reminding them to LISTEN TO OUR GUEST and USE OUR MANNERS. This amount of negative feedback is sufficient for me to avoid storytelling gigs with as much grace as I can muster. And that’s a gig that calls for me to read someone else’s published text, not spin a yarn of my own.
I’m fascinated by improv, I really am. I admire tremendously the comics and writers who thrive on it. I attended a performance of the Second City Touring Company when I was in college, and I couldn’t believe that people could just go up on stage, ask for a few prompts, and create a unique, evolving show from it. Granted, they were different people — extroverted in inverse proportion to my introverted nature, and mugging to the camera instead of hiding from it at every opportunity. They wanted people to look at them, to react to them, to interact with them. And in more recent years I watched several seasons of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and Last Comic Standing, and Kids in the Hall, and SCTV, and Big Train. Some people are born to perform. I am not one of them. I can watch them on The Green Room or Inside the Actors Studio, talking passionately to each other about baring their souls in front of cameras and live audiences. My own soul is safe in the bottom drawer of a locked filing cabinet in a dark room behind a basement door marked ‘Beware of the leopard,’ so their public trials are my escapist literature. I could listen to them for hours.
Personally, I need structure for a story. I need to know who’s in it, and why they’re there, and where they’re going, and what the crisis is, before I can start writing. I need to see it before I can write it down.
But I also know, from having studied Story and Literature, that everything has been done. It was thousands of years ago that someone wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” Intellectually I know that there are only novel combinations of tropes and themes. You learn the rules so that you can break them when it’s appropriate, but you do learn the rules.
So, what do we mean when we call something “creative”? If we take it literally, it is the act of creating something, making something that is completely new. But if there is nothing new, what can “creative” mean?
To Jack, it might mean “say something I haven’t heard before.”
To Neil Gaiman, it might mean “say something in a way that no one else dares to.”
To Frank Herbert, it might mean “create a world nobody else has imagined.”
To Ursula LeGuin, it might mean “change the rules and keep going.”
To me, it means “be different; be eccentric; be surprising.” But if you’re writing, you must plan ahead to be able to surprise others… which makes for a rather tedious bedtime story. Sorry, kids.
All my kids are adept at the “game” of Minecraft, which is really an interactive virtual world. You mine for elements, you craft items, you build structures, you battle evil creatures. It sounds simple, but I’ve seen Minecrafters create amazing things: player pianos, quiz boards, electronic sorting devices, elaborate prank wars, collaborative games, and challenging adventure maps. There are so many ways to use the toolbox that Minecraft gives you. One of them is the mode you choose: Creative, or Survival. In Survival Mode there are creepers, zombies, witches, silverfish, and all manner of possible deadly attackers; you play in this mode with your head turned, certain that something bad is sneaking up behind you. Because it is. Given enough time, your screen will tint red and you’ll see a button that reads “You died!” (Even worse is Hardcore Mode, in which your entire world is destroyed upon your death. That’s hardcore, all right.)
In Creative Mode, however, the rules are dramatically different. You have unlimited resources, no enemies if you don’t want them, and you pretty much have superpowers. You can fly. And the only way that you can die in Creative Mode is by tunneling so deep in this Flat-Earth construct that you fall through the last level of bedrock and go out into the Void.
In Creative Mode, you’re the sixth son of landed gentry. You don’t have to be a doctor or a minister or a lawyer or a soldier — you can follow your heart and your whims. You can build a castle on shifting sand and nobody will raise a hand to stop you. You don’t have to watch your budget or your back. You have the luxury of godlike powers to assemble, build, create, and design. You have what every director in Hollywood wants: creative control.
How would your real life change if you could live it in Creative Mode? If you didn’t have to worry about not getting your paycheck or your support check? If you knew you couldn’t get hurt and wouldn’t get sick? If you could arrange things your way? If you always had reward without risk? Would complete safety and freedom lead to innovation, or to sloth? Would you write your own story, or read someone else’s?