Logophily: Creativity and Synthesis [1]

By Joel Patton


When I was a teenager [2], I struggled a lot with the idea of creativity [3]. Apart from a contest-winning third-grade essay [4] and lots of doggerel verse [5], I still wasn't much of a writer, except inasmuch as I played a lot of roleplaying games, and as a natural part of that, I generated a lot of game-related prose: descriptions, creatures, objects, scenarios, worlds [6].

But in that realm [7], I'd been self-conscious about how few original ideas I seemed to be able to come up with, even in a genre as proudly omnivorous (and free from copyright concerns, given the homebrew and noncommercial nature of what I made) as gaming. I read a lot of good ideas. I wanted to have good ideas [8].

I found solace in the denouement of an episode of a sci-fi series, though I also felt a lot of anxiety about it, which I think you can understand, just given the sentence that I've written right here.

On 2 Oct 1989, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Ensigns of Command” aired. The whole episode deals with Data, an android [9], being concerned about matters of creativity. I didn't remember a damn thing about the episode (prior to reading an excellent summary) except for a bit in one of the final scenes: Data synthesizes two different styles of playing the violin, and his cap'n notes that this is a profoundly creative thing to do.

This idea was a tremendous epiphany to [10] me. I'd thought of creativity as a whole-cloth invention, producing something entirely new. The idea that it might not be was comforting. Mildly comforting. To a point. I also felt as though the idea were something I probably should have come up with myself.

But synthesis became a way that I learned to be creative. It's easier to track my progress as a sculptor, though it's equally nerdy, given its origins in the same games.

I used to spend a lot of time painting miniature figurines [11], something like toy soliders but (sometimes) wildly more complex. Their nominal purpose was use during the games, to set a physical scene for difficult-to-imagine logistics [12], though practically we didn't do much of that, since it was easier and just as fun not to.

I was never terribly satisfied with just painting the figures. It felt (but wasn't) uncreative. To make things a little more creative, I started modifying them, gradually at first: bending them very slightly to change pose, or clipping and filing to turn (say) a sword into a dagger [13]. Gradually, I got into more complicated things: swapping hands, swapping heads. Much later, I started doing light sculpting to cover up the joins, then sculpting new parts, then just sculpting my own miniatures [14], mostly during graduate school when I should have been working on my thesis [15] [16].

Five years after that, around twenty years from my first minatures purchases, I was working [17] as a representational [18] artist [19], more or less by accident [20]. I started out by just taking what other people did and rearranging it.

That lingering feeling eventually passed. I began to think of composition as com-position: stuff put with stuff. I'm not making up any words here as I write; I'm just using the old ones [21]. Even the metaphor of whole-cloth creation is wonky: whole cloth has to be put together [22].

There's an even more compelling idea in the original sense of the word: create comes from Latin creāre, the original sense of which is “to grow,” in the intransitive sense. (Crescent is a cognate [23]: it's not the shape qua the shape; it's the fact of the moon waxing.) Including growth as a kind of synthesis might be stretching this metaphor too far, but I suppose that that kind of thing is my general modus [24].




1. Alternative title: “Creanthesis”

2. Also before that. Also after that.

3. Years of being jarred by misplaced modifiers have left me unwilling to write the perfectly correct “As a teenager, I struggled a lot....”

4. “What My Country Means to Me.”  I lost track of it during my teenage years -- the exact teenage years mentioned above.

5. Still a strength. Give me a call if you've got any job leads involving doggerel verse. Or leads for jobs involving doggerel verse.

6. I was going to make a callback non-joke joke about not writing any doggerel verse for games, but I just remembered that one of my best friends and I used to play a game where the only concrete rule was that my in-game character could cast magic spells via bad rhymes. The more convoluted and awful-while-still-scanning the verse, the more spectacular the in-game result.

7. That unforgotten realm....

8. A still later realization was that having ideas can come from reading ideas, but at this stage I was worried about influence. It was a profoundly stupid attitude.

9. I'm not sure what I need to explain to you nerds, here. I mean, we're all nerds, but I'm hoping the overlap is sufficient. Something happened after my formative years, and now everybody now knows about wizards and lightsabers and warp drives. As far as cultural developments go, I'm pretty chuffed. Regardless, Data's schtick is that he's an android, and is slowly and sometimes badly learning human things like emotions and mores and (in this episode) creativity.

10. To or for? I went with to, but it almost felt like at.

11. Typically, they're referred to as miniatures, or slightly less often as figures.

12. I find that imagining a dragon is much easier than imagining the space it takes up, but that's probably a personal matter.

13. Originally, miniatures were made out of poison. Later, they were not.

14. The material use for physical sculpting is a two-part epoxy putty that cures in around an hour, but can be sped up a bit with heat, and can be attached to metal (a wire armature, eg) and to already-cured putty (handy for large compositions). Now, many (most?) sculptors design the miniatures and have them 3-D printed. None of the professional miniatures sculptors I know have been left behind by this development... the knowledge seems to transfer to the new medium.

15. Before I arrived at school, I'd accidentally appended my miniatures-page .sig file to an email to my grad-student mentor. The result was that I was quietly referred to as “Joel the Troll” for some months.

16. My thesis ended up consisting of both a manuscript and a physical Skinner/Cornell/Reich box: a Patton box.

17. Well, not much at first.

18. Representational is here used loosely. I was sculpting faces, but it was pretty fast and loose for a while there.

19. Finding my artistic mentor was the final catalyst, but I'll leave that for another essay. Or I hope I will. I've got unfinished threads going back a few years now.

20. I'm in an odd place between craft and art, and between fine and folk art.

21. All of these words are perfectly cromulent.

22. From clothlets, I think? Clothlings? I forget.

23. Also crescendo, but that makes more intuitive sense as a metaphor.

24. Later, I'm probably going to need to address synthesis vs composition.

Joel Patton is a potter in Travelers Rest, SC.