As a writer, creativity is important to me because without it I would have nothing to say, nothing to write about, however I truly believe that creativity is rather over-rated and the emphasis placed on it is misguided.
To me, creativity is just the spark that ignites a process that may or may not result in the birth of something new. That something could be a piece of music, a painting, a story … or a new theory in the sciences. Yes, I include scientific theories as well as the arts because innovation in any form requires both imagination and the ability to think outside the box. It also requires hardwork, self-discipline, oodles of dedication and the courage to persist in the face of repeated setbacks. Elevating ‘creativity’ above all the other necessary ingredients is like trying to bake a cake with nothing but eggs. If you’re lucky you may end up with an omelette but you sure as hell won’t be eating sponge cake.
And let’s not forget those pesky tools of the trade. Just as cabinet makers need to know how to use hammers, chisels and saws, writers need to know how to spell, punctuate and write grammatically. These are not optional extras! As a writer I may choose to mangle the language in order to give a character a certain kind of voice, or to create a mood etc but god help me if I do so unintentionally!
Style is another misused tool. Poetic licence should never be invoked to cover up poor writing. Styles in writing have changed a great deal since the time of Dickens but we can still tell good prose from bad. How? By looking at how well it does what it is meant to do. If it captures the reader’s attention and holds it from start to finish without any ‘what the..?’ moments then it is good prose. It may not be great prose but it is good nonetheless because it is doing the job of conveying the content without intruding. It is neither bloated nor awkward and it rarely needs to be skimmed because none of it is superfluous. And good prose never makes you re-read a passage to tease meaning out of a sentences groaning with clauses.
What then is great prose?
To me, great prose is good prose that also happens to be lyrical and evocative, or just plain beautiful. ‘A Postillion Struck by Lightning’ by the late Dirk Bogarde is one of those rare books that exemplify what great contemporary prose should be. I rarely read biographies much less autobiographies but… let’s just say that I made an exception for Dirk Bogarde the actor and fell in love with Dirk Bogarde the writer. The story he told was quite ordinary – I’m sure countless children of his day would have had similar experiences – yet he made it special because he told it so well.
“The sun had been up only a little while and beside me, close to my face, so that it was actually all blurry and looked like an eagle, was a burnet-moth on a bit of grass, feeling the sun and waiting for the dusk to come.”
This complicated sentence should not work yet it does because the punctuation is perfect, as is the flow of imagery from boy lying in the grass to moth being watched by boy. It conjures images familiar from our own childhoods. And the creativity lies not in the content but in the telling.
I believe great prose can lift any content, even if it is not particularly imaginative or ‘creative’ but even the best content cannot make a book enjoyable if we are forever tripping over the writer’s more mundane inadequacies. So let the creativity take care of itself and focus on the telling. You may be surprised by how good the finished product becomes.