Lately, I’ve been reading the book, The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. It’s about architecture and two boys who decide to pursue careers in it. Upon graduation, they pursue two very different paths to get where they want to. The story is about the consequences of those choices. In addition to generating an interest in architecture, it brings up some good points about what creativity is. In this post I’d like to talk about defining creativity using the main character’s remarks as a basis.
This Post Isn’t About Originality and Practicality
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the battle between originality and practicality in writing (it’s now part of The Stitched Up Guide to Writing). The gist of the post examined whether we should write things that are creative, but that don’t rank well from a search engine standpoint because they are niche, or pieces that are practical and gain high traffic. The conclusion I came to was a balance of both. Original writing keeps up the interest level while practical writing establishes our competence.
In this post, I want to take a step back from that and explore what creativity itself is. Furthermore, examining this through the metaphor of architecture will illustrate that the answer is not as simple as you might think.
A Couple Quotes About Architecture
The first chapter of The Fountainhead talks finds one of the main characters, Howard Roark, in the Dean’s office. Howard has recently been expelled for failing too many design classes. He refuses to design buildings using tradition as a guide, opting for more “original,” “fringe,” and “modern” designs. For example, in the below scene, they are discussing what constitutes great architecture.
“Why do you want me to think that this is great architecture?” He pointed to the picture of the Parthenon.
“That,” said the Dean, “is the Parthenon!”
“So it is.”
“I haven’t the time to waste on silly questions.”
“All right, then.” Roark got up, he took a long ruler from the desk, he walked to the picture. “Shall I tell you what’s rotten about it?”
“It’s the Parthenon!” said the Dean.
“Yes, God damn it, the Parthenon.”
The ruler struck the glass over the picture.
“Look, ” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns—what are they there for? To hide the joints in the wood—when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”
Rules of Architecture
“Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”
“Every form has its own meaning. Every man creates his meaning and form and goal. Why is it so important—what others have done? Why does it become sacred by the mere fact of not being your own? Why is anyone and everyone right—so long as it’s not yourself? Why does the number of those others take the place of truth? Why is truth made a mere matter of arithmetic—and only of addition at that? Why is everything twisted out of all sense to fit everything else? There must be some reason. I don’t know. I’ve never known it. I’d like to understand.”
When I read these in the book, it caused a lot of introspection. Did I agree or not? At first, I was right there with Howard. He brings up a really good point with the Parthenon and using different material for the same structure. But I could also see the Dean’s point of view that there is merit to what has already been done. Paying homage to that is respectable and acceptable. Everyone likes it.
So What is Creativity?
Honestly, the above arguments can apply to any subject, not just to architecture. This post could go many different ways. Let’s bring it back to creativity for now (if you want to discuss other applications, I’d be happy to). Is creativity building old things out of new material? Or is it building new things based on the material at hand? The scope of the question is still too big so we need to narrow it down further. Let’s take creativity in writing.
Old things Out of New Material
Is creativity in writing creating old things out of new material? Interesting question. The material for writing has gone from clay, papyrus, parchment, paper, to digital paper. Can digital paper do the same thing as clay writing can? Yes. Write. Have designs from previous types of paper carried over into the design of digital paper? Yes. Each type of paper holds words or glyphs in a manner that is long-lasting and readable. That trend has continued on for digital paper. The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this paragraph, at least regarding the design of paper, is no. However, writing doesn’t consist of creating material. It consists of creating ideas.
Is creativity in writing using old ideas with a modern day approach? According to Howard Roark, the answer would be no. He would say that no two stories have the same purpose. Therefore, reusing old ideas or plot lines would be inadvisable. As Howard says, “A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body”. Furthermore, every story should have its own meaning and form. Just because you do a modern-day take on the three musketeers doesn’t automatically make it a classic.
What do I think? It depends on the author’s intentions. If the intention is to make a tribute to an author, then a variation on the original story or theme is acceptable. Otherwise, you should stick to your own stories.
Creating New Things Based on the Material Used
Next, let’s examine creativity from Howard Roark’s point of view. Creativity is creating new structures based on the material at hand. You build steel buildings based on the qualities of steel and designs that fit the times. You don’t build a Parthenon of steel. In the writing sense, you create new stories based off the genre you are writing. Take sci-fi stories for example. There are certain qualities of sci-fi, such as the consequences of human interaction with certain types of science. Finally, based off that and other qualities, you craft a story.
Creativity is Hard to Define
Admittedly, the comparison is a hard fit. The issue with discussing creativity in the paradigm of architecture is a matter of visuals. Architecture involves physical material. Iron, steel, and copper. Materials also change over time. They become strong and lighter. There is a constant of progression. On the other hand, while writing material progresses, the ideas are everywhere. There is no upward trend. There are good stories, bad ones, ones set in the old west, and other set in deep space. As such, it can be hard to quantify what creativity is based on Howard’s view of architecture. The best I can to bring it all together is this:
Creativity according to Howard Roark is writing a modern original story that doesn’t copy the ideas or plot of another to boost its credibility.
There are thousands, probably millions of stories in the world. Is that even possible? What do you think?