I coach my thirteen-year-old daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind team. Odyssey of the Mind (“OM” to those of us on the inside) is an international creative problem-solving competition that involves thousands of teams around the world addressing OM-created problems in original ways. If you’re so inclined, you can check out the program here.
The new OM season started a couple of weeks ago, and the opening sessions always lead me to ponder the seeming paradox between imagination and structure. I say “seeming” paradox, because I don’t believe there’s any real paradox at all. True creativity is, in my mind, a marriage of imagination and structure. The random expression of ideas is not creativity; that’s cacophony that sometimes accidentally produces something inspired. Creativity is always built upon a foundation. Terrence Malick is a creative filmmaker, but you can see touches of Fellini, Kubrick, and Herzog in his work. Bon Iver is an original band, but their work arises from a blend of folk music, progressive rock, and minimalism. Louis C.K. is an inventive comic, but the structure of his work goes back not only to irreverent comedians like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, but also more conventional ones like Groucho Marx or even Bob Hope. Terrence Malick, Bon Iver, and Louis C.K. are able to be so successful at their invention because, consciously or subconsciously, they have incorporated the most fundamental tenets of the craft into their interpretation of the craft.
This relates to the book world, which is why I’m bringing it up here. Another way of looking at creativity is to see it as the crossroads of tradition and revolution. To me, the best fiction hangs out at that intersection. I love it when writers take chances, but I find it unsatisfying when a novel is little more than a goulash of ideas. For example, I read a novel recently where the author switched narratives and narrative voices in hodgepodge fashion, with little plan that I could discern. I didn’t enjoy that novel. Similarly, I love genre fiction, but find it mind-numbing when a writer follows an obvious path from beginning to end. However, if a writer acknowledges basic storytelling conventions – well-developed characters, a clear (even if not linear) narrative arc, establishment of scene and setting – and then performs his or her variations on that, I find I’m very happy.
To me, that’s what creativity is all about. Now to convince seven thirteen-year-olds….