One of things I wanted to accomplish with my short story collection Shards was to unleash my creativity and push the envelope. I’d grown tired of the same formulaic plots and stories, both in literature, and on television and in movies. I recalled writer Harlan Ellison’s tales about Hollywood producers being unable to grasp creativity. To pitch them an idea for TV series, a writer had to give them a one-sentence tagline that analogized the proposal to a previously successful show. For Gene Roddenberry to sell Paramount on the idea of Star Trek, he had to describe it in terms Hollywood would understand. Wagon Train had been a popular Western show on television at the time, so he pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train in space.” Instead of the wagon train traveling to different towns where adventures would occur, a spaceship would travel to different planets where adventures would occur. The producers nodded and said “Ah.” Now they understood.
Today more than ever, everything in Hollywood is about taking something that was successful and cloning it. Hollywood is all about sequels and spin-offs and recreations of prior successes. Star Trek is a perfect example. Hollywood produced three more television series and umpteen movies and just when you thought they couldn't get anymore milk out of that cash cow, J.J. Abrams was brought in to re-create the show by rebooting the Star Trek universe.
The Hollywood producers do this because they are extremely risk averse. This might sound odd, considering how many millions of dollars they routinely lose on box office flops and TV ratings disasters, but they would rather attempt to re-create a successful concept than back an unproven creative work. Creativity and originality scare them because they don’t come with a track record. If a work is too different, too creative, too original, then it falls so far outside their comfort zone they won’t touch it. Creativity and originality, in their eyes, is radioactive.
What they've lost sight of is, the most successful shows had their genesis in creativity and attempts to re-create originality only result in successive degrees of mediocrity. If creativity truly is radioactive, then attempts to clone it produce mediocre work with its own inherent quality half-lives.
Creativity is often not recognized or understood. As Andy Wachowski, director of the film Cloud Atlas, said, “As soon as (critics) encounter a piece of art they don't fully understand the first time going through it, they think it's the fault of the movie or the work of art. They think, 'It's a mess ... This doesn't make any sense.' And they reject it, just out of an almost knee-jerk response to some ambiguity or some gulf between what they expect they should be able to understand, and what they understand.”
Perhaps the Hollywood producers are, in one respect, correct. Creativity requires the viewer or reader to step outside his or her comfort zone. Sometimes, the viewer or reader simply may not “get it” because the story is so far removed from that individual’s personal life experience. I remember a public reading I did several years ago, and what made it memorable was the fact it was the first time I had been booed by an audience at such an event. I was reading my short story, The Abuser, a first-person tale of a woman suffering through an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. I was only two paragraphs into the reading when the boos and derogatory murmurs bubbled forth from the crowd.
Yet, like Gunga Din I soldiered on, reading the short story to the end. The boos and murmurs had stopped midway through and turned to rapt attention. Still, I was not sure if I had won over my audience. Afterward, a crowd gathered around me and one woman approached me, complaining my story had been totally unrealistic. “No woman would put up with that,” she stated emphatically. “Any woman would have kicked him to the curb in five minutes.” She walked away, and a woman who’d been standing behind her came up to me and said in a voice barely louder than a whisper, “Don’t listen to her; she doesn't know what she’s talking about. You just described ten years of my life.”
Both women had heard the same story and walked away with completely opposite reactions as to its verisimilitude. They had listened with the same ears, but filtered what they heard through vastly different life experiences. For one woman, my writing fell flat; for the other, it had touched her very soul. That doesn't happen when you play it safe and give the reader a retread of familiar ground. When a writer pushes the envelope and boldly goes where no one has gone before, he runs the risk of alienating those who will never “get it”. But creativity is its own reward, and even those who don’t understand a creative work today may one day appreciate it when viewed through the filter of their life experiences yet to come. Beam me up, Scotty.