What is ‘creative’ about creative writing?

Creative: (adjective) relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.

This definition implies that creativity cannot exist without unique ideas originating from the mind via the imagination.

Creative writing: writing, typically fiction or poetry, which displays imagination or invention (often contrasted with academic or journalistic writing).

Again there is an insistence on contrast with fields that relate to objectivity and do not allow the imagination to have free reign. The implication is that creative writing has to, in some manner, concern itself with imagination. Narrative non-fiction appears to contradict this definition, but the presence of a narrative invites imagination.

One can object that all written word is inherently subjective, so the elimination of imagination is impossible. The difference, however, lies in the significance of the imagination in different forms. In narrative non-fiction, the facts serve as constraints for the imagination, but imagination itself remains a key player. This is not true in the case of journalism or academic writing.

Invention or originality creates another crisis for the existence of creative writing. If creativity entails the creation of something new, then it threatens the very existence of the central idea behind writing. Since writing is a means of communication, writing something totally original would also, by extension, be writing something for an audience of one. Writing for a reader would require the writer to have common ground with the reader, so the writer will have to sacrifice creative purity for the privilege of being understood.

The paradox of creative writing is that a written work has to be equally understandable and obscure to be of any value. But this element of obscurity need not be limited to obscure words originating from the writer’s personal dictionary. Writing is the articulation of ideas, so originality can be found in the ideas expressed or how they are articulated.

The originality of ideas expressed can be considered as the standard commonly used to gauge the originality of a written work. The usage of this standard appears to muddle the line between academic writing and creative writing. However, academic writing almost exclusively concerns itself with the articulation of new ideas but is not considered creative writing. The strict logical requirements of academic writing can explain this distinction between the two. So, the imaginative element of creativity is essential for any writing to be called creative.

Style is the other even more elusive characteristic of writing used to judge the creativity of written work. Style concerns itself with structure. Even rhetoric, at its root, is how arguments are structured. Structural innovations affect how the information is presented. It plays on the creative relationship between the writer and the reader where the reader is equally responsible for the creation of meaning from a text. The writer uses structure to guide the reader’s line of thinking down a particular path. A different structural spin on a familiar idea can excite original interpretations in the reader, thus lending the idea a novel meaning.

The English language, in particular, depends on structure for meaning: suffixes and prefixes have strict structural limitations and affect the meaning of a word, and phrasal structure determines the meaning of a sentence. This idea can be extended to the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. This widens the field a writer has for originality. Any innovation in any structural element can be considered creative because such innovation will transfigure the ideas contained within the structure into something original.

The creative value of a written work also depends on the reader. A reader unfamiliar with an idea will regard the idea to be original, however, another reader may trace the same idea back to an existing document. The same is true for structural innovations.

This variability makes it hard to assign a particular definition to creative writing. It means the reader is complicit in defining the creative value of a written work. Might the creative part then be what happens when the reader reads? As in, a piece of writing is creative if it provokes the imagination of the reader to create new ideas.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) introduces new complications. NLP is a branch of artificial intelligence that concerns itself with linguistics. This technology is used by blogging bots which can produce outlines for blog posts or complete blog posts. The writing produced is not good but is serviceable for some use cases. A simple next-character prediction algorithm can generate facsimiles of Shakespeare indistinguishable in structure.

The content of these imitations ranges from the surreal to random gibberish, but the structure is there. GPT-3, however, is a language-prediction model that has shown the capacity to generate content that is not gibberish. Coherent AI content-generation software is just one or two leaps away.

If the structure of a particular written work is important, and simple algorithms can generate outlines or create facsimiles of any writer’s work, then what about the writer who indulges in structural imitation with the aid of a computer? Can such computationally generated writing be considered creative? Its creation does not involve any use of the imagination but has the power to excite the reader’s imagination.

AI thus presents itself as an existential problem for writers and creative writing. This can be a good thing as writers are forced to use more of their distinctly human advantage. Surrealism and greater use of intuition? Perhaps a return to the all-knowing narrator? The death of creative writing as a trade? Only time will tell.

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