The Doublethink of the Creative Process

This is a touchy subject, to say the least, and this is very much my own personal response to it. Often the arguments about cultural appropriation (and by extension any art that contains “problematic” material) boils superficially down to two camps of (a) just do it, it’ll be great and (b) it’ll be terrible, you shouldn’t do it. Which is itself an unfair simplification of the conversation going on. Either way, this has been gnawing at my mind.

So, there are two fundamental skills in the creative process that can be pithily termed (a) Fuck It, it’s good enough and (b) Burn It, it’s terrible.

And at different points in the process, we want to hear and need to hear different encouragement and advice. We want simple and universal solutions, when inevitbaly things are a little more complicated than that[1].

Which is all to say that I understand why people like Lionel Shriver rant defensively about how cultural appropriation Isn’t A Thing. They’re wrong[2], but on some level, it’s necessary to believe that just long enough to create. After all, I need to believe that I can write characters, situations, worlds outside of my own personal experience[3], the same way I need to believe that what I create will be of worth. I need to believe that yes, despite reaching seeming saturation point, the world does need me to write my version of Beauty and the Beast[4].

It’s an act of granting permission. Words to silence the spectre of self doubt and creeping black dog of despair. This work is too cliched. It leans too heavily on this stereotype. This character is problematic. This aspect of the setting is culturally appropriative, etcetc…

And I understand too well those moments. The mind ties itself up in knots and in trying too hard to avoid cliche (and its opposite, which has also itself become a cliche) that everything becomes bland as beige.

Sometimes, I’m deep in the word mines, halfway through a chapter and really all need is someone, anyone to grant me that reassurance: Yes, you can write this. It’s okay. Just keep going.


And this is the important bit.

After that great burst of creativity, I need to open again that door and look critically at the NaNoWriMo-esque word vomit I’ve produced. There may be no Bad Ideas during the brainstorming phase, but that is no excuse for not pruning them afterwards.

Assessing your own ideas is hard and often another pair of eyes, like an editor or an alpha reader, is helpful. Find a friend who can act as a sounding board [5]. Separate components of a story may have collided and created Unfortunate Implications through no fault of your own[6]. Stories are complicated things and it’s not always easy to see the knock on effects of each creative decision in the moment.

But stories also don’t exist in a vacuum[7]. This is the point where I notice I’ve named my main character Dino, and no matter how legit a name that is in Italian, most readers might not be able to take that seriously. That whilst the Lotus Eaters are a thing in the Odyssey, it might not be the best idea to name the opium-analogue Lotus if I’m writing in a fantasy Far East setting because the flower has additional symbolism there. That this story all about how the villain won’t acknowlege the humanity of any person outside their immediate family doesn’t actually contain characters who aren’t related to each other (thereby undermining the central point that people who aren’t your family still matter). That whilst I’ve unthinkingly described this heroine’s hair so often as long and black that it’s become a bit fetishistic or that I might have meant the “chink” nickname as a reference to a chink in her armour, that word has other meanings.

Being able to do that, to scrutinise what you’ve written (or what you’re about to write) is very important. I cannot allow the permission and encouragement necessary for putting pen to paper blind myself to the possibility that what I’ve created is terrible. To be able to acknowledge that I’ve written something awful, that I need to Burn It is as critical a skill as being able to say Fuck It, this is good enough.

And that’s why I see it as a sort of doublethink, that act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. I should at once write whatever I want, because of the sheer universaity of human experience and that all writing in an act of pretense and appropriation, but also that I should be critical of my own writing, rigorous in my research and work within my limits, becaues I owe humanity that authenticity of voice and subject.

More pragmatically, I am advocating cycles of creativity and criticism as an approach.

Some days, I need to believe I can write anything and some days, I need to look carefully at the monster I’ve created. It can hurt, to need to throw away or drasticially rework what I’ve written, but that too is the price of creation.

And more importantly, I should not mistake the confidence necessary to write as reason to shut down criticism[8].

[1] I, of course, am guilty of that selfsame generalisations in this post.

[2] Lionel Shriver is full of false equivalence, is intensely smug and tries to boil down a complex issue into a simple one. I understand where she’s coming from, but art doesn’t take place in a vacuum. We don’t live in a vacuum.

[3] When I was young, teachers kept wanting me to write about myself and my own life and I hated every second of it. My own life was so boring and so intensely everday. I wanted to write about dragons and the magical English countryside where you have adventures on boats and drink ginger beer, but that’s a different anecdote for a different day.

[4] I’ve purposefully not touched heavily on the underlying power and politics of any given groups writing about any other group because, well, no one is off the hook. It may feel to some that arguments on the internet is all about white people writing about non-white things, but we worry about it too.

[5] But equally don’t expect random people to do your homework for you. Just as I can’t impose on all my friends to read my precious manuscript, I can’t expect them all to help me understand any given aspect of their personal experience or culture. This goes double for people on the internet.

[6] For example, Empire orcs used to be brown as a response against the unnatural skintones of bright green Games Workshop orcs. Separately, they also decided that the backstory of the imperial orcs is that they used to be enslaved by the Empire. It took an embarassingly long time for someone to notice that these two facts combined poorly. Empire orcs are now grey.

[7] It’s probably worth saying now that if I’m drawing on a genre or a culture I have limited knowledge about, I should start examining my sources and what I’m being inspired by. Creation is like breathing, they say, inhale and exhale. So, if I’m drawing on Japanese culture and I realise the bulk of my knowledge is from anime, I should probably at least venture a little further. When I was about ten, I wrote a book set in the idyllic English countryside based wholly on Enid Blyton novels and I assure you, that was a terrible idea. Whilst no one likely to decry cultural appropriation at my mimicry of Blyton and the underlying power dynamics are very different, I use it as an example of how fundamentally flat basing something entirely on one genre will create. Don’t do that.

[8] Not all critical responses are obliged to be constructive, nor are they written with me specifically in mind. People ranting about Suicide Squad being awful don’t have to then add an appendix about how it can be improved, their critique and their disappointment is valid either way. These things aren’t written to give me advice on how to write better and they don’t owe me that. They are also not there to cheer me and my efforts on.