x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Creative genius or data drone? Either way, it's a 'bad idea'

In many lines of work there's a distinction, which is basically false, between so-called "creative" people and everyone else.

One of the least meaningful words in the English language is the word "creative", because it implies that there's something else, something "non-creative" and that the two things need to be separated somehow. As if creative people are just all walking around, thinking creative thoughts while the other half, are, I don't know, data-entry drones tapping robotically on a computer keyboard.

The image of the "creative" person, though, persists. Creative people are flighty and unreliable, dashing around in scarves and mismatched clothes, tossing off brilliant sayings and having penetrating insights. Or so goes the cliché.

Mostly, of course, that's an image perpetuated by people in more artistic lines of work. Advertising copywriters and media executives like to swan around in the latest skinny jeans, looking pained and beset by complicated creative insights. It's in their interests - both social and financial - to draw a bright line between the dull keyboard tappers and the raving artists. Check out any advertising agency or television network if you don't believe me. You'll find that the employees there know exactly which side of the creative divide they're on.

I'm not sure, though, that anybody is "creative" in that sense. Most of what people do in the arts is either sitting very still hoping that it'll soon get dark and everyone will be able to go home, or just grinding it out like, well, like hard work. Like the very data-entry drone, tapping robotically on his computer keyboard, about whom they snigger.

And that's the problem with trying to be creative.

"Creative" implies some kind of lightning in a bottle. But there really is no such thing as a sudden burst of creative clarity. Most of what we think of as art or literature - not to mention my shabby little corner of almost-quasi-sort-of art, screenwriting - is really the product of a whole lot of hard and unglamorous work. Calling it "creative" ignores the long hours it takes to put paint on a canvas or words on a page.

And in any case, what's the point of acting creative in the first place? Why bother knotting up the fancy scarf when we all know that the minute any of us thinks we've made some kind of creative breakthrough, someone in the vicinity says: "Well, that's an OK idea. But maybe we could go another way? What else do you have?"

So when we have an idea to contribute, we instinctively protect ourselves.

"OK, bad idea" is how most screenwriters I know - a group that's supposed to be arrogant and creative - begin pitching a script fix or a story idea to a group of colleagues. "OK, not this, obviously, but what about …," and then we'll suggest something in an offhand way. Although to be honest, no one ever says "Not this" and means "Not this".

When screenwriters in Hollywood denigrate their own ideas, when they say: "Here's a probably bad idea," what they mean is: "I don't know whether this idea is good or bad, so before I suggest it, I'm going to toss some dirt on it, preventing anyone in this room from thinking I'm a terrible writer."

What they hope for, naturally, is a loud chorus of people saying: "Are you kidding? Not this? That's a terrific idea! Yes, this! Of course this!" And if it's not too much trouble, they'd like to be carried around the room in a kind of impromptu celebration of their genius.

It rarely works out that way. Most creative ideas really are awful. Despite their complicated eyewear and interesting jackets, more often than not the creative staff of any enterprise is going to be firing blanks. In the simmering war between the "suits" and the "creatives", the "suits", ultimately, hold the cards. They can sit in dull judgement, freed from the burden of coming up with anything on their own.

On the other hand, the best thing about being on the creative side of a venture is, you're allowed - even expected - to pitch some real stinkers. The CFO, for instance, can't begin his quarterly call with industry analysts by saying in an offhand way: "OK, these are probably the wrong numbers, but …" And the CEO can't announce a new business model by proclaiming, at a shareholders meeting: "Here's a strategy that may not work …"

Only "creatives" get to say "Not this", which is reason alone to squeeze into the skinny jeans and toss the scarf around the neck in a really dramatic way.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood