Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Creativity is Radioactive

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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Standing Up to the Bullies

During this Passover week, Jews leaving their temple in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk were handed a leaflet ordering them to register with the (unrecognized pro-Russian) government, declare their assets, and pay a registration fee or face loss of citizenship and deportation.

Exactly who distributed the leaflets, and why, is uncertain. They might have originated with a pro-Russian separatist group, or they might, as Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed leader whose name appears on them, have been distributed to discredit his group. It could be the work of pro-Russia provocateurs, including those backed by the Russian government itself, or those seeking to discredit them, such as the American CIA or NSA. Or they could be the product of a hate-filled individual or group with no political agenda.  The fact that these leaflets went out is dangerous. Articles like Julia Joffe's in the liberal The New Republic magazine are also dangerous because they are ignorant, insultingly dismissive, and display a failure to comprehend the lessons of history. Joffe's full public display of her impressive ignorance ends with her flippant self-aggrandizing comment: "If that changes, I'll be all over it, but so far, you can breathe easy. No Holocaust 2.0 just yet.")

Snopes.com has the most accurate account, but whether the leaflet came from the government or a provocateur is irrelevant. It serves to fan the flames of anti-Semitism and to make the unthinkable thinkable. History shows this is how it begins. It also shows each time there are complacent, ignorant, or misguided individuals who proclaim "Relax, it could never happen." – as it is already beginning.

History is the most important subject you will ever study because, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History has taught us that when America foolishly involves itself in the wrong wars, the American public grows war weary and loses its enthusiasm for participation in future wars. Would-be conquerors know this. After World War I – started over the assassination of an insignificant archduke, with its death toll of 17 million, and another 20 million military and civilian wounded, making it among the deadliest conflicts in human history– war weary Americans turned isolationist and merely watched for two years, as England led the battle against Germany while France fell beneath Nazi jackboots. Americans are easily led into wars by jingoistic and patriotic propaganda, but when they go on for too long and the bodies start coming home in coffins, public sentiment not only turns against the current war but against all future foreign entanglements. We saw it with Vietnam, and we are seeing it again in the post Iraq-Afghanistan era.

Vladimir Putin sees it too. The opportunistic, ex-KGB, Russian president is a master of timing. He has waited 16 years since coming to power for an opportunity like this. He acted boldly and with impunity by annexing Crimea because he knew war weary America had lost its bluster and swagger of the Bush era and eschewed further conflict. Emboldened, Putin has initiated not-so-covert attempts to destabilize the Ukrainian government through local incitement by pro-Russia provocateurs. He saw the reluctance of the American populace and its Congress to follow President Obama’s expressed desire to intervene militarily in Syria, where the civilian death toll has now passed 150,000 men, women, and children.

Putin, like most political observers, has concluded America has entered an isolationist phase, allowing them free reign to do as he pleases, including possibly reconstructing the Soviet Empire from the ashes of history. And that is why, if America truly wishes to be and remain the world’s superpower, it must grit its teeth, suck in its stomach, and do what it finds distasteful and unwelcome. It must stand up to Putin and put all prospective would-be conquerors on notice that America, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, is “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Being a superpower isn't about having the biggest battleships or the most nuclear weapons. It’s about being the kid in the schoolyard who stands up to the playground bully. Only now, the bullies have grown up. They still pick on those who are smaller and weaker, but now their aim is to conquer countries or to commit genocide. We don’t have to be a superpower. We could be like Canada or Switzerland and use our great wealth, not for arms, but for domestic improvement. I've often argued we should. But I've lost that argument. For better or worse, like it or not, we have chosen to be a superpower among nations and thus we must live up to that responsibility.

As JFK said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.”

The American Congress, its president, and its people, must unite in principle and challenge Vladimir Putin’s ongoing incursion into Ukraine. If challenged, Putin, like Khrushchev before him, will back down. Unchallenged, his voracious geopolitical hunger will be unchecked, and others will feel free to engage in anti-Semitism, pogroms, and so-called racial cleansing.

President Obama must develop a backbone and echo JFK’s words: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”