“Creative” should mean something

As a kid, I went to a lot of summer-camp-type programs. Not all of them were actually camps in the woods: some were just arts and crafts projects hosted by the local college. But all of these programs were meant to ensure that only children like myself didn’t spend the whole summer in a lightless basement playing video games.

One of these college-hosted programs had me in a classroom with about 20 other kids. We were given a challenge: using an allotted supply of tape, paper, drinking straws and paper clips, make a construct that would allow a light bulb to survive an 8-foot drop. It was a standby activity that got kids thinking and building for an hour.

While fiddling with the paper and straws, my assigned group didn’t seem to have any good ideas springing forth. Or any ideas at all, really. So I threw out, “Hey, what if we wrap the paper around the lightbulb base like this? So it makes a cone, and the open end of the cone acts like landing gear.” Everyone agreed, in the blasé but curious way of kids who don’t know what to do. I basically led the exercise and my lightbulb construct ended up looking like a prototype lunar lander. The paper cone bristled with drinking straws — so the cone wouldn’t fall over, you see.

The other groups of kids made the simple models frequently seen in this exercise: crumpled balls of padding encasing the lightbulb, or landing pads to be put on the floor under the bare, falling bulb. Most of the day’s constructs successfully protected the light bulb. A few failed and were followed by broken glass cleanup. My lunar lander performed perfectly, landing on its open cone end with a quiet click and holding the light bulb se.

Afterward, the program leaders stood in front of the chalkboard and graded each construct. We got scores out of 20 points in several impressive-sounding categories. This was a farce, of course — it’s not like a casual summer program is going to give a child a failing grade in arts and crafts. At the time, I was just waiting excitedly to see if my clearly awesome construct would get the best score. Getting the highest score would mean that I won, right? Or at least that I was good at doing assigned things in a cool way.

In the category of Creativity, most of the other kids got score of 16 or 17. Drawing a design on your crumpled ball of paper was enough to get a score or 19 or 20 and be called very creative. So when a program leader arrived at my lunar lander and held his chalk near the Creative category, he hesitated. His face scrunched up with thought, and he hemmed and hawed something about how he had never seen a design anything like what my group did. Reluctantly, he wrote “21/20”.

And somehow, that was the most disappointing grade my teacher’s-pet self had ever received. 21 out of 20? What the heck was this noise? If actual innovation broke the grading parameters, then the grade was meaningless. I could sense that even though I just wanted to be the smartest kid in the room. The program leaders had watered down the term “creative” until it meant little more than “I acknowledge that you made something”.

Nowadays, I think of that experience when I’m reading reviews of mainstream fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a clichéd story about a destined farmboy, but I wince when I see those types of stories called “creative”. Like there’s something exceptional about redoing a well-worn trope. Sure, it’s creative in the strict sense that magical quests don’t happen in our real world and there aren’t any dragons in our skies. But if we call a hero youth with a sword “creative”, what will we do when a project comes along that shatters all our expectations? Give it 21 out of 20? Or 500 out of 20, because that’s about as meaningful?

I think it’s important to say what we mean, and keep our expectations high. Book grading is never anything but subjective, I know. People who are dazzled by the special farmboy probably just haven’t read much fantasy, so to them, it seems like a truly creative spin on an adventure quest story. But I expect a “creative” story to break rules or try something really out there, not just put a bit of window dressing on something familiar. Personally, I write about bird-dragons on peaceful quests for personal truth and I often feel like I’m not reaching high enough. There are new models to try, if we’re willing to wander away from the more obvious choices. And they might just work exceptionally well.

Our modern mainstream media shows a strong preference for safe ideas. Things that have been done before and can be doodled on to make them look new. Just look at all the franchise reboots and sequels available for us to read and watch. Creativity is something I don’t think we can get enough of: we should be building strange constructs whenever possible, just to see if they work. And as a consumer of ideas, I’ll always be expecting 20/20 creativity to surprise me.

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