Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Well of Creativity

The death of J.D. Salinger today prompts a fascinating question. After writing one of the most popular American novels of the 20th century, Catcher in the Rye plus a couple of books of short stories, he quit writing and lived a very reclusive life. He guarded his privacy to such an extreme extent, he tried to prevent other authors from writing biographies of him.

On the other end of the spectrum of creative productivity, we find popular authors who seem to produce a new book every six months, with some of them writing under pen names because they are afraid that they could water down their brand name if they produce too many books.

One of my writing teachers used to say that the world might be better off if more authors accepted the fact that they only have one good book in them.

Between these two extremes, another author, Joseph Heller wrote Catch 22, which is another of the most popular American novels, whose title itself became a popular catch phrase. He did write other books, but nothing ever came close to the impact of Catch 22. It must be a sort of weight on a person to always have that question hovering over them that wonders if he will ever again produce anything as great as his most famous work, even though he has produced other books.

It is a fascinating question to contemplate. Why or how do we hit our limit of creativity?

Ray Bradbury, author of many great titles, including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man, Zen and the Art of Writing, and many other titles, insists that he has never had writer's block. He says that he has always loved writing and that's what he has always wanted to do.

How many times can a person go to the well of creativity?

I cannot answer that question, but I can observe that some of the writers who have produced a great many titles have created many great works, while some prolific authors keep rehashing and warming over something they did well once or twice.

Perhaps it is as simple as getting out of our own way to be able to go to the well. Perhaps those who have huge blocks are simply unable to open their mind and go farther. Sometimes people get overwhlemed and shocked by their early success are never quite able to comprehend or come to grips with it. And there just may be those who have written one or a few excellent books for which they will be remembered and they have nothing else to write.

It is a fascinating question. How many times can we go to the well?

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