Trademarked Victory

Let’s talk about free speech and offense. Specifically in the case of Matal v. Tam, an interesting case decided by the US Supreme Court this week. (Yes, for one in this blog’s life we are topical.) The details of the case are a little bizarre but important to the issues of today’s discussion. There was a band. All of the band members were of far Eastern descent. “Asian” if you will. They chose to call their band The Slants. And the US Trademark and Patent Office refused to grant them a trademark on their band name as it was generally considered an insult to people of certain backgrounds.

Namely those of Asian descent.

There’s all kinds of think pieces out there on this issue. I don’t care about them. I want to talk about The Slants. Why did they choose to name their band with a derogatory brand?

Well for starters there’s this fairly comprehensive post on the band’s website giving their reasoning in full. But if you want it in brief they saw a word and they chose to claim it. Three quick quotes of note:

“For too long, people of color and the LGBTQ community have been prime targets under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, simply because we believe in the deliberate disarmament of toxic language and symbols.”

“Music is the best way we know how to drive social change: it overcomes social barriers in a way that mob-mentality and fear-based political rhetoric never can.”

“There will always be villainous characters in a free society but we cannot be so blinded in our desire to punish them that we are willing to bear the cost of that cost on the backs of the marginalized.”

Co-opting insults is a great American tradition that predates the Declaration of Independence. The song “Yankee Doodle” was an insulting ditty British troops used to sing to insult the Massachusetts colonists, characterizing them as backward hicks with no idea of what good culture or right living was. The colonists, fully aware of the insults, promised that by the time Massachusetts was done with them the British would be dancing to the tune. On 19 October, 1781, General George Washington accepted General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender. The British troops were piped out to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”.

An insult became a reminder of how the Americans were worthy of respect.

The Slants claim their band name is an attempt to do much the same – although they haven’t cited this particular example to my knowledge. The band wants to break the power of an association – rather than let “slant” be an insult they seek to make it the name of a great band. If they do well then the pejorative nature of the word will quickly fade into the shadows of their musical legacy and if they don’t what is really harmed by their trying? With EPs like The Band That Must Not Be Named the band is showing they at least understand that they need a towering legacy and I say let them try for it. Their music is a little bubblegum for my tastes but I’m sure it has a market and they should have every chance to find it and achieve their goals.

But there are people who don’t like this. Example. In a nutshell this argument boils down to, “People who say mean words about groups who have rough histories hurt those groups like they had run them over with a car full of burning crosses.”

The question I have for these people is, if the power of an insult can be broken, isn’t the long term value of trying such a thing more important than any short term harm the attempt might cause? And even if it fails, should the very act of trying to reinterpret an insult a sign that the community doesn’t need to be coddled by you? Rather than trying to dictate what people can and can’t say, why not let them argue the thing out on their own so they can learn and grow, rather than trying to keep them depended on you so the mean words don’t hurt them.

Fortunately for The Slants, and anyone who hopes to create in America, the Supreme Court sided with Simon Tam and said the band could have their name and the US Patent and Trademark Office cannot stand in their way.

Art and communication are predicated on our taking symbols like words or images and assigning meaning to them. One of the greatest undertakings an artist or communicator can attempt is putting a new meaning to one of these symbols. The undertaking would have so much less value, would do so much less for the human condition, if we couldn’t use that process to change horrible things into delightful things. What would there be left to do? Change delightful things into delightful things? Or worse, turn delightful things into boring things.

The Slants have set their hands to a noble undertaking – turning a horrible thing into a thing of joy. It’s something we should all aspire to. Can they actually do it? I have my doubts, but that’s not what matters. What matters is what they make of it. You’ve earned your chance, boys. Make the most of it.

Boutique Writing

These days the idea of having something made for you is becoming more and more popular. Artisanal beer, boutique clothes and Etsy handicrafts are very popular with consumers. Writing has always had a certain aspect of hand craftsmanship in the care and effort put into any good piece of writing. But the modern era has turned mass communications from a very narrow field into something anyone with an Internet connection can do. Communication, once a very personal activity, has become one of the most impersonal things we do.

On top of that, writing a story is a bit of a selfish endeavor. It requires you to sit down and work out exactly what you want to say, how you want things to happen, then polish every bit of it until you are satisfied. It’s personal and creative and, while those are things common in boutiques, it’s not necessarily a process easily shared. How would you even go about making money off of it?

Well, recently the website Patreon has come to prominence in many Internet based creative circles. The service is basically a cross between subscription billing and crowdsourcing, allowing a creator and his (or her) audience to receive support directly from whatever audience is interested in his or her work and communicate directly with that audience. There’s not many writers supporting themselves on Patreon, partly because not many writers support themselves by writing at all but partly because writing doesn’t mesh well with the Patreon format.

Or, more accurately, the Patreon format doesn’t mesh well with the average writer.

You see, Patreon is essentially a digital storefront, a place where people can sidle on in and belly up to the counter and chat with their favorite artists. Being on Patreon is a bit like being a portrait artist on a boardwalk in a tourist trap. You sit, you draw, you chat up anyone who comes close. The only difference is where in the process they pay you. But most writers, myself included, are introverts who spend most of our communicative energy on whatever we trying to write. And we’re a touch on the secretive side. Yes, workshopping a writing project is important to making it the best it can be. But at the same time, revealing a lot about your story to your audience ahead of time isn’t a good way to tell stories. And letting your audience influence your story too much is a good way to loose the distinctive voice and style that attracted them in the first place.

Then there’s spoiler culture. Where a comic artist – a very common breed of Patreon user – might be able to showcase covers or character design work without revealing too much about a story, a writer doesn’t have that kind of work on hand. Character bios or plot outlines are going to give a lot about your story away and audiences these days are trained to despise that kind of thing. Patreon for writers can’t be a spoiler hub but the service screams for some kind of reward to share with your audience in exchange for following you. Yes, above and beyond what you already do.

Some have suggested having multiple ongoing storylines that your Patreon supporters can vote to advance but I know that personally I’d have a hard time producing the best quality story I could if what I wrote was at the whims of the audience and likely always changing. Plus I would imagine your supporters would ebb and flow depending on whether you were advancing the story they wanted at any given time. Viable? Maybe for some but not many and certainly not me.

Writing advice is very common on the Internet, I give it away free as do many others, so that’s not the greatest way to carry on a dialog with your audience. There might be a market for people interested in editing but that is very time consuming…

Is boutique writing a viable way for a writer to make a living? It doesn’t seem like it is right now, not because the infrastructure isn’t there but because the craft hasn’t evolved to meet the possibility. In the future it might become one. I haven’t cracked the question yet, and I’m not in any hurry to experiment, but if you figure something out be sure to share with me. I’d love to hear it.

Unbelievable

The willing suspension of disbelief is something every author counts on. So here’s a quick thought experiment: How much disbelief are you willing to suspend when you’re in the audience? And what are the things that test your suspension when you’re consuming media? I’m not just talking about the things that actually take you out of a story but anything that piques your interest even if you put it aside for the sake of enjoying the story. Odds are there are more things in the typical story than you think. The mind tends to gloss over these things but they’re still there and if you want to be a good writer you need to train yourself to catch them in other people’s writing if you’re going to have a chance of catching them in your own.

Unfortunately a lot of looking for unbelievability is a matter of feel. It’s a very subjective field, which may prompt you to ask why authors bother tracking it. The simple fact is that anything that can help you figure out your audience is worthwhile. When trying to work out what’s believable and what’s not it’s a good idea to ask friends and family for help. While not the best source of feedback for your own work; when examining general culture they can be a real benefit to you so take as much advantage of them as you can.

“Try it until you get it” isn’t the most helpful advice so here are a few examples of the kinds of things to look for as you try and figure out what might stretch believability without breaking it.

The Man Without Fear. People who can’t get scared are a bit of a trope in geek circles, the most prominent examples are probably the Green Lanterns of DC Comics and the paladins Gary Gygax put into Dungeons and Dragons. Both are very simple in concept – no matter the situation they don’t get scared – but there’s not anyone like that in real life (outside of people with severe mental disorders). I’ve noticed that people who haven’t spent a great deal of time exposed to the trope tend to find it a bit of a stretch. Sure, there could be people like that but they’d kind of be freaks, right? This is a pretty good example of what to look out for.

The Omnidisciplinary Scientist. You know how smart scientists or engineers on TV seem to be able to figure out just about anything by looking at it for two or three seconds? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here. Any given discipline of science requires years of study and work just to get the basics. No one, not even Einstein, has the level of genius these characters portray. It stretches belief but it’s convenient for the story and most people will just let it go.

Chronically Clumsy. This trope shows up in a lot of low quality comedy. As the name suggests it involves someone who’s chronically clumsy constantly making a mess of things. Not only does it get old fast it starts to raise questions about the clumsy person’s friends. Like, why don’t they learn? Again, not a deal breaker on its own. But when stacked with a dozen other unbelievable things… well, it can be a deal breaker.

If you read or watch or listen to a lot of the critics out there you’ll find it’s the little things that are often the breaking point. A work can go from mediocre to bad simply because a single thing jumped out and got under their skin, somehow becoming emblematic of all the unbelievable things in your work. Sometime just cutting one of those things is enough to make the difference.

Of course there are other ways to make your audience accept things that are totally unbelievable and using the right methods might still let you get away with your original vision. Like believability itself, your mileage may vary.

The Rule of Cool. This rule basically states that an audience is more willing to forgive something that looks cools but is unbelievable. Pretty much any action movie made since the 80s is an example of this as most of the physics and fighting in those films wouldn’t work in real life and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but never seems to bother audiences. Of course not everyone likes action movies so it’s important to know your audience but this rule is still very useful.

The Rule of Funny. Even more subjective than the rule of cool, the rule of funny says that audiences will play along with your unbelievable things if they are funny. Most romantic comedies do this when they put two totally different people with different social circles and life choices in some bizzare situation that results in a relationship forming. No, it wouldn’t happen but it makes for funny situations so we forgive it.

The Fridge. Fridge tropes all revolve around the audience being too tied up in what’s going on in a story to catch on to something else the author is doing. This works really well in some situations but counting on the audience being distracted from unbelievable elements of your story is a risky move. Not only do audiences have different attention spans, if something is outright impossible it tends to show through. Don’t count on this working for anything other than minor story elements.

It’s important to keep track of what it is in your story that defies belief. Not because such elements are inherently bad, but because too many of them can lose your audience. Audiences are rare and valuable things and should not be taken lightly, so don’t burden their credulity willy nilly. Keep track of the unbelievable things in your story and make sure they’re serving the plot. Then, if necessary, employ the tricks of the trade to make your impossible things palatable.

All this requires you to have some sense of your audience going in. None of the techniques for obscuring impossibilities are a substitute for audience understanding because without it you won’t be able to get a handle on what they’ll find outrageous in the first place. So get out there and start finding out what people won’t believe.

The Emotional and Physical Cores

The quest for believable characters is a long and arduous one, full of false leads, difficult lessons and special cases. One such case is the so-called “strong female character.” While what that phrase implies specifically varies from person to person in general it refers to a character who shows the fortitude and strength of character frequently portrayed in cinema by the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart. Except these characters should be female.

It’s a lofty goal to show as many different characters as possible living life with strong convictions and personal integrity and I wholeheartedly agree that women should portray this as well as men. However, many stories that set out to create a strong female character overlook a concept we’re going to call the physical and emotional cores of the story and that hamstrings their attempt to tell a good story with a strong character at the center. Let’s start by talking about what I mean by physical and emotional cores.

Each story tends to have a a physical and emotional embodiment. Another way to think of the physical embodiment is as the part of the story where action takes place and the emotional embodiment is where the story tries to make you feel something. Most good stories tend to have characters act more in one or the other of these areas to make those characters clearly defined. Yes, this is unrealistic but it tends to lead to better storytelling overall.

The two characters who best embodies the themes of the story carry the emotional and physical cores of the story.

For example, in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty the emotional core rests with Princess Aurora, who’s feelings of isolation and desires to see the wider world define the emotional tenor of most of the film. The physical core rests with Prince Phillip, who finds Aurora in the forest and takes her to experience new things. He also takes center stage in the battle against Maleficent in the third act, another moment of peak physical storytelling.

It’s important to have the two cores in proximity to each other at moments of importance as they tend to draw one another out into sharp relief and lead to some of the best moments in a story. It’s Phillip and Aurora’s meeting that sparks their resolution to resist their arranged marriages (even though said betrothals are to each other, which they don’t know at the time). It’s also the catharsis of their reunion that makes the climax of the movie hit us square in the feels.

The problem is, if both the physical and the emotional cores are in a single character it can be hard to see how they’re impacting each other. Look at any shoddy piece of fiction and you’ll see unclear motives and hard to understand actions. That can happen for a lot of reasons but sometimes it’s just because one character is carrying too much of the story. Like any real person your characters sometimes need to step back and take a break, breath and let ideas settle. A character can’t do that if they have to carry both halves of a story.

At the same time, it’s the way the two cores impact each other, the emotional and physical character influencing each other with their different goals and needs, that makes the important moments impactful. If both cores are in one character that tension is missing.

How does that relate back to writing “strong female characters”?

Well, in the typical story women carry the emotional core and most people who set out to write strong female characters just take the physical core and hand it to their female character as well resulting in exactly the problem we just discussed. If we want a female character who carries the physical core – and this is typically what people mean by “strong female characters”, many characters have carried the emotional cores of their stories and been plenty strong but that’s not the point – if we want a female character who carries the physical core then we have to put the emotional core somewhere else.

A great example of this is the much more recent Disney film Frozen, where Anna embodies the physical core, climbing the mountain to find her sister and struggling with a slowly debilitating curse, while Elsa embodies the emotional core, struggling with self doubt and self loathing while struggling to maintain emotional distance from those around her.

Another is the animated 1990’s film Ghost in the Shell, where the Major embodies the physical aspect, taking most of the highly kinetic action scenes for herself while her partner, Batou, while still having action beats, mostly serves as a sounding board for her philosophical musings and an emotional tether to the humanity she fears she’s left behind. Where Motoko is mostly an emotional cypher Batou takes it upon himself to feel embarrassed by her lack of modesty and grieve when she is wounded.

Whether or not you’re interested in the mythical “strong female character” understanding where the physical and emotional components of your story lies is important. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is missing one or the other of the sides, either. The best action heroes tend to be grounded by family and friends and Harrison Ford still punched someone out in Sabrina. No matter what your story is, knowing who goes where in these equations is going to help you construct a better narrative.

The Broken Character Cycle

I’m not a huge fan of mainstream American storytelling, especially in longform mediums like TV or serialized novels. This may come as a surprise to longtime readers who have seen me comment on a number of such works in the past, many of which I said I liked. Well, odds are I still like them but as I’ve consumed more and more of them I’ve noticed one plot in particular occurring over and over again, a plot that has grown quite old and worn. I refer to this plot as the Broken Characters Cycle and this week I want to take a quick look at what it is, why I think it’s grown so popular and why, ultimately, I think it needs to go.

First things first. What is the cycle? In broad strokes it looks something like this:

  • There is a character who has made Bad Choices
  • That character seeks a New Start or undertakes a Great Work of Atonement
  • The New Start or Great Work requires the character to form new Relationships
  • The character is improved and edified through the Relationships and values them highly
  • At some point the Great Work forces the character to betray the Relationship or the other(s) in the relationship learns of the Bad Choices the character has made causing them to question the Work
  • The character sacrifices the Relationships for the Great Work (or visa versa)
  • Completing the Work or saving the Relationship leaves the character unfulfilled and full of guilt
  • The character seeks a New Start or undertakes another Great Work
  • Repeat ad nauseum

So why is this so popular? Two reasons.

First, it is a really good structure for a story. It has conflict built into it already, the structure is very flexible and can apply to anything from a courtroom drama to a hospital procedural and still function as is. Pretty much any kind of character can fit into the story structure, from cheerful slackers to driven geniuses. Second, the end of the cycle seamlessly blends into the beginning, allowing movies in a franchise or seasons of a TV show to return their characters to their neutral starting position and facilitating an easy set up for the next installment.

Both of these storytelling considerations are very important for the writers of long, ongoing media properties. Each movie, book or season needs to start at a place where new audience members can easily join and that makes the second point very important. The first point makes keeping up with the grueling timetable of a modern media franchise much easier as the basic framework of story and narrative beats never changes, just the details plugged in to them.

But these are only benefits for the production crews working on these media properties. The broken characters cycle doesn’t really provide a whole lot of benefits for the audience beyond a steady stream of story. And even that steady story can become a drawback.

The thing about the cycle is that it isn’t particularly complex and is very predictable, with story beats that come in very specific times and from very specific directions for maximum impact. You don’t have to be a media glutton or a trained story analyst to start seeing through the cycle, it just starts happening after a little while. And, worst of all, it doesn’t let the character at the center of the cycle grow from their experiences at all. There’s no character growth or substantial change to the status quo that isn’t quickly made irrelevant or undone entirely.

That gets frustrating very quickly. Media franchises need some kind of escalation over time, especially when they run for more than three installments. When the plot deliberately cuts that out of the equation through every iteration then it gets harder and harder to get invested.

Worse, while the cycle does provide great potential for conflict, both internal and external, for all those involved it’s very easy to see it coming, to the point where who falls in which roles can be determined as soon as a character starts down the cycle. With a story so easily predicted it can be easy to lose your audience. Think of it this way. I loves me a good pot of chili, but if I had to eat it every day for a month I’d get tired of it no matter how good the ingredients were or how skillful the chef that prepared it. The cycle is the same way – it’s not flawed inherently but today pretty much any story seeking to be dramatic executes the cycle at some point, if not as it’s primary story arc then as the arc for a supporting character. An most of them will run through the cycle repeatedly.

Now it’s true that there aren’t really any original stories, just new takes on character arcs like the broken characters cycle. And the lack of novelty is one of the reasons why anything attempting something fresh, from presentation to technique, tends to attract the attention of media critics. But with pretty much every major dramatic media franchise leaning on this cycle to some extent broken characters wear out their welcome very quickly.

I don’t really know what to do about the broken characters cycle. As I said before, it’s grown so popular for good reason. With the endless churn of Netflix, Hollywood and TV constantly demanding new content it’s entirely possible we won’t see a change of direction simply because relying on crutches like the cycle are the only way to keep up. But with the rise of the Internet independent media has begun to challenge old production cycles and changed the playing field. I hope to contribute to that change myself. But even if you don’t be on the lookout for this kind of ingrained wisdom. Stepping outside of it is sometimes all it takes to be a breakout in the media world.

See you next week when we talk about not talking.

Iron Fist’s Identity Crisis is NOT What You Think

For those who are new to this blog, the basic pattern I have is to alternate between writing fiction and general commentary on writing and stories. Now that The Face of the Clockworker is complete we’re switching gears into something a little different. Hope you enjoy!

Netflix original shows are stirring a lot of hype these days, none more so than those connected to Marvel. I recently picked up Netflix and decided to give the latest series, Iron Fist, a watch to see what all the noise was about.

That was a mistake.

Iron Fist is not particularly good TV, an opinion most people who have watched the show seem to agree with. The reasons for that are pretty straightforward, yet it’s a trap a lot of writers, myself included, tend to fall into and that makes it worth looking at.

Let me start by mentioning two things people are blaming that are not the reason Iron Fist is lackluster. First and foremost, the problem is not Finn Jones, be it as an actor, a martial artist or a white dude. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t find his performance in Iron Fist particularly memorable. But he does give the role a bit of nuance, handling nostalgia, discontent, joy and anger pretty well. He’s not going to win awards for his performance and that won’t be an oversight – he didn’t do anything that would stand out. But his performance is worthy of any number of CSI/Law and Order franchise shows and plenty of people like them.

It is true that Finn Jones was basically an amateur martial artist but, through intense training and what was most likely good use of stunt doubles they were able to make him pass as a competent fighter. Maybe not a great one, which he is admittedly supposed to be, but it’s really hard to tell. Danny Rand does so little fighting in the series, especially in the first half, it’s hard to get a grasp on how good or bad he is at it. Iron Fist has some really great fight scenes in it, especially in the later episodes. Not all of them are works of beauty and they lean a little too much towards being over choreographed ballet than the frantic, semirealistic action of a John Wick. But it’s supposed to be a martial arts series, not a typical run-and-gun action series so I can forgive that. The genre tends much more towards that kind of hyper stylized action and I generally like it. I generally liked the action in Iron Fist, too. In short, I don’t think Jones’ experience – or lack thereof – in the wushu department was the problem – or even a problem.

Finally, I don’t think the fact that Finn Jones was white was a problem. I could go on and on about the European martial arts traditions and how they developed differently from the Asian martial arts, and why, but that would waste space. Firstly because the point of it all would be to say that the basics of unarmed combat exist in every culture, the cultures just put their own spin on them. The only thing particularly unique about the Asian traditions is the strong emphasis on spiritual awareness they tend to include in their teachings. Second because that’s not the real problem people have when they make the point.

For some reason a small cadre of people hate the notion of an outsider coming in, learning a skill from a given culture and mastering it better than his teachers. The fact that a white person does it somehow makes this the same as colonization, apparently. The whole notion is ridiculous. Ignoring the fact that outsiders as protagonists makes exposition much easier for the author, the point is it happens all the time. In fact, it can lead to radically advancing the art form. Consider the Suzuki school of music. Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese man, created one of the most widespread and successful methods of early music education even though all the instruments taught with that method are European.

Besides, Iron Fist isn’t even a story about a man learning and mastering a skill from a foreign culture. It’s about a man who has already done that and comes home to use the new wisdom and power he gained from the lessons of others to help those he left behind. Danny Rand frequently seems to miss the world he left behind far more than he values the one he returned to. What’s really being praised in that case, American culture or Eastern culture? And why should it make a difference either way?

The second thing that is not the problem is the show’s production schedule. I hear it was somewhat rushed, in particular leading to Jones not getting as much training in stunts and martial arts as the stunt directors might have wished. Maybe this all is true, but I couldn’t see many signs of it in the way the show was shot or the way the action scenes unfolded.

In truth, this show could have had any lead actor and all the filming time in the world and, if the script and structure of the story wasn’t touched, I would still find it mediocre.

The real problem with Iron Fist is that, while it features a protagonist who’s supposed to be a master of martial arts and uses that mastery to defend the little guy there isn’t a whole lot of martial arts or defending of little guys going on at first. And even when the series picks up in the second half, Iron Fist remains weirdly obsessed with corporate intrigues, boardroom politics and the owners of the Rand Corporation, the business Danny’s parents owned before they all flew off and died in a plane crash along with Danny. Compared to the kung fu action we are promissed by the show’s premise it’s all pretty boring.

Worse, the show treats this corporate conflict as the core conflict rather than the sideshow. The mastermind of the process is the villain taken down in the final episode even though he hasn’t really been an obstacle to Danny for the rest of the series. The Hand, the villainous Triad-ninja hybrid crime gang that Danny spends most of the series fighting gets plenty of screen time but doesn’t really seem to do much for the story. In fact, except for a tacked on and nonsensical attempt to have the climactic episode of the show tie in to Danny fighting a dragon and gaining his powers during his training, the whole corporate intrigue side of the show doesn’t tie into Danny’s character arc at all.

While the Meechums and other corporate characters are kind of interesting, and might have made for a good story on their own, when tied to the story of Iron Fist they just take up running time that could have been spent developing characters like Colleen Wing or Claire Temple more, characters who brought much more to the central thrust of Danny’s story than the Meechums. Not to mention we might have gotten to see Danny doing more cool martial arts stuff like, I don’t know, fighting a dragon?

This is a common problem for a lot of writers and Iron Fist is a great example of why cramming too many conflicts, characters and themes into a single story hurts. The people who wrote Iron Fist tried to chase two rabbits and caught neither, leaving the audience hungry and feeling like their time was wasted. The show is a mess because no one knew what kind of story was being told. Sad, but not entirely unexpected. Better luck with The Defenders Marvel.

Creativity is a Response

Postmodernism came about fifty to sixty years ago to insist that the only way that artists could be truly free to create was to tear down every obstacle, tradition, convention or interpretation. Prevailing wisdom had to go, centuries of understanding about art, founded by brilliant men like da Vinci or Rembrandt, was junked because there was no way those guys could have had anything relevant to say to people as advanced as ourselves. The artist was finally free to create whatever they wanted. The direct result is that modern art is terrible.

What happened?

Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, the world’s most popular card game, has a little saying he frequently shares with the people who ask him for advice. That saying goes, “Restrictions breed creativity.”

This saying suggests that having limits placed on what you can do leads to more creativity, not less, and if it’s true then the very notion that someone seeking to be creative must have no limits is not only wrong – it’s counter productive. And if all that’s true then the postmodern conception of art and creativity is directly responsible for the decline of the quality in creative endeavors postmodernists undertake.

All this is not to say it’s bad to toss all restrictions to the side and think about ideas in the abstract. It’s part of how we drive human thought forward. But art is meant to be shared with other people, that’s why there are museums, galleries and showings, to say nothing of the lessons, classes and even schools dedicated to the arts. There are a lot of very good, useful human processes that aren’t meant to be shared with others and personal naval gazing is one of them. The personal background that underpins such introspection makes it difficult to relate to in any format short of a dissertation when it is entirely based on personal epiphanies, which seems to be all that postmodernism leaves the artist to work with.

In short, it may not be a coincidence that postmodern art has such a bizarre fascination with human excrement. One of the boundaries it’s lost seems to be what should be public and what should be private.

Moving on.

Let’s talk about how restrictions help us be creative. Human beings are fundamentally lazy creatures, if we can make a straight line from Point A to Point B we will. But put a wall in the way and all of the sudden what a person does to get from Point A to Point B can be any number of things. Go around the wall, climb over it, cut through it or dig under it. This creativity is engendered by the limitation put in their way. It’s not even possible to climb or cut without a wall in place to act on. Yes, a person could still wander around or dig without a wall, but they’re not likely to go to all the work if they don’t have to.

And as I said before, having restrictions placed on you can give you new ways to look at the problem. Instead of going about things the way you always have, restrictions can force you to look at an issue in a new way and create whole new ways to problem solve – or to express yourself.

And a person could say to themselves, “Well, I’ll get where I want to go without using any straight lines.” But guess what? As soon as they’ve done that they’ve set a rule they have to follow in order to help them be creative. The restriction breeds creativity.

You see, rules don’t have to be limitations set on us by society, or physics, or human nature. They can just be guidelines we create for ourselves. When confronted with the seemingly limitless possibilities of a blank piece of paper it helps to have guidelines to help determine where you’re going to go with it. Are you writing a story? A poem? Painting a landscape? Or drawing a cartoon? All of those things are limits on what you are creating. Without them the possibilities would be paralyzing.

Beyond that, many rules exist to tell us what has been tried and found wanting. Yes, we could try and reinvent the wheel. But doing so is neither groundbreaking nor helpful. To go back to the original analogy, by throwing out all the rules in art postmodernists not only threw out years of conventions, that admittedly may have hindered artistic expression to an extent, they threw out all the rules built on an understanding of what makes a thing beautiful to see and easy to understand. While the occasional modern artist will stumble across something that makes their ideas accessible to others they won’t bother to share it for fear of limiting their peers. And so they keep badly reinventing the wheel when artists like Michelangelo were the artistic equivalent of interstellar flight centuries ago. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Too often people who want to be creative look at a restriction on what can be done as a block to creativity. But the truth is, creativity expresses itself however it can, overcoming obstacles and reveling in the things that should undo it. It responds to the idea that a thing should be difficult by showing how it’s a delight. Without structures, creativity is dead.

Christmas is coming up, and this is my last post for the year. So I’d like to leave you with a little gift. Here is a list of ten creative endeavors, complete with things restrictions, that you can try out. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for how your creativity comes out in response to them.

  1. Write a haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry with three lines where the first and last lines have five syllables and the middle line has seven.
  2. Write a short story in one hundred words or less.
  3. Write a review of the last movie you saw without adjectives or adverbs.
  4. Build a LEGO house using no pieces smaller than 2 x 8.
  5. Describe your day without using colors or numbers.
  6. Prepare a hot meal without using a knife.
  7. Draw a self portrait without using a pen, pencil, brush or crayons.
  8. Write your next five Facebook posts or texts without using the letter ‘u’.
  9. Film and edit a music video using nothing but your phone.
  10. Draw a portrait of a friend but lay out every line using a ruler.

Hope you’ll chose to share a few of your endeavors with me. See you next year!