Reflect or create

Another tale from my dim ages. I once knew a young man who was going to be a rock star. He had some talent with a guitar and he had a group of friends who formed a thrashing sort of band that performed regularly in one of their basements. The band had a name, though it escapes me now, and they already knew what they wanted their first album cover to look like. All they needed was a recording contract and the instant success that was surely their due.

I lost track of my friend more than twenty years ago, but as far as I know, fame eluded the band. For the while that I knew him, though, it was pleasant to be around a fiercely creative and passionate person. His creativity found its expression in his song lyrics, and he’d often hand me some sheets of paper with his scribble on them, telling me I was the first to see his latest inspiration. Now I know next to nothing about the standards of rock lyrics, but reading his became a formative experience for me.

My friend was always enraged by the public issue of the day, whatever it was. He might not have heard of some matter the day before, but once he did, he found that he held deep and unshakable opinions about it the next day. And so he would write his songs about these issues, showing in most cases that he held the “appropriate” opinions about them. It was then that I suspected he wasn’t going to make it as a rock star.

My friend was busy reflecting the culture in his songs, which is fine in an ephemeral way, but I think true artists don’t reflect their culture but create it.

I should say right now that many people make quite a commercial success of writing songs or novels about the issues of the day, taking the politically correct stance and doing so in a clever, appealing, or hummable way. The trouble with this, to my view, is that they risk being out of date in a day or two. Once a craze or a fad passes, once an issue fades, so does the creative work, by and large. For example, it’s almost passé now to write mystery or detective fiction with a forensics, CSI-like approach. Sure, there are still plenty of readers who enjoy this subgenre, but no one is pushing the envelope with this any longer. I’ve heard much the same thing said about stories with teenage vampires. The market is now so saturated that I’ve heard literary agents say that any submissions like this had better be extra special to get considered at all. And in a year or two, the fickle reading public will have moved on to some other sweeping, all-consuming passion, leaving the practitioners of a given subgenre with a dwindling (though generally loyal) readership. (This is my inner curmudgeon speaking, of course.) Given the year or two of writing time, and the addition of the submission, editing, and publication time for a novel, this window of opportunity for a “timely” story gets even smaller.

My point is that as creative people we have the opportunity, and I sometimes think, the obligation, to create our culture, not merely reflect it. We should be exploring new means of expression and finding new subjects to explore. Or perhaps more clearly put, we should find the issues or growing interests of the day that most people aren’t yet aware even exist and begin to explore them. Moby Dick is far more than a book about whaling. Melville was decades ahead of his age by probing issues like slavery, injustice, capitalism, the existence of evil, and the very existence of god, disguising it all in a voyage story. These questions are still being asked today, and this is why that novel is still studied and discussed a century and a half later and why some people have devoted their professional lives to its understanding.

This is the kind of thing we can all strive for, and even if we can never hope to reach such a height, we and our work will be better for the attempt.

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2 Comments on “Reflect or create”

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    Terrific post, Paul. You’re absolutely right.


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