Essay: Notes on Creativity & Originality by Jeneva Burroughs Stone


Monster, a collection of essays by Jeneva Burroughs Stone, is forthcoming this fall from Phoenicia Publishing. Illustration courtesy of Beth Adams (Phoenicia Publishing). Photo courtesy of B. Farbo.

My husband and I set out to have a child in the usual way. Our zygote was, of course, an aspect of our imagination—a he or a she, hair dark or light, eyes bright—we envisioned the future and it was luminous with happiness. We didn’t give much thought to the machinations of DNA during our procreative abandonment. We were “making” a baby, which is and isn’t like making art. Something was being created beyond our control. We had only imagination to guide us—art’s cognitive origin.

Opposite sexes, like my husband and myself, are said to attract and reproduce in a heterogeneous biological pattern (difference), but patterning in art comes from homogeneity, the recognition of likeness, sameness, “giving form,” as Mary Shelley wrote in the 1831 preface to Frankenstein, to “dark, shapeless substances and bringing equanimity from disorder, pattern from diversity.

So genetic recombination (the secret of life) might be art’s antithesis: two DNA molecules unzip their double strands, nucleic acids release and then join hands with a new partner—a patterning—but each half-strand’s original material and biochemical variations rearrange, randomly, to make a blueprint—functional or not—for an organism. Each conception offers a species a potential new direction or a dead end.

Evolution begins with DNA, but Darwin didn’t know that. His 1859 theory from On the Origin of Species is predicated on chance and happenstance—evolution an opportunistic engine expending energy in multiple directions simultaneously—not a progress toward perfection, if that’s what art is—or the making of it—revision ever onward toward an ideal. Origin points backward toward a source, while artistic originality has connotations of the fresh and new—a drive forward. How to reconcile these root significances, if at all?

By now I know a number of scientists. Recently, one confirmed my feeling that the purpose of DNA, or the genome, is to create variation, the unexpected. These random changes to genes during recombination are called “point mutations,” which may be of no use to the organism, but any of which might hold the key to species survival down the biological road. Or not. My individual genome is filled with missense, salted with point mutations—everyone has them. Human beings might be the art of chaos.

Although I can’t revise him, I go on saying I “made” my son within my body as if I created him, formed his bones and organs, nurtured his neural connections with the food I ate and the substances I avoided. For a time, I became him and he me. When he was born, he seemed perfectly normal, indeed beautiful. Just after his first birthday, something broke down abruptly—within two days, he’d lost most of his muscle function, speech, and his ability to eat lasted only a year. Today, he travels by wheelchair, is fed through a tube, and can only access communication devices by using his eyes. His body has become deformed and distorted; he sometimes drools.

David Foster Wallace referred to Infinite Jest, his novel-in-progress as a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around … hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love.¨ Wallace meant to convey the struggle of writing, the tremendous scope of reconciling ideal and actual, and how it can go so awfully wrong—a creative process gone awry.

A disabled child is certainly an original—what an artist wants?—but in Wallace’s conceit, the book-child represents damage, irreparable difference, a failure of creativity.

Of her creative process, Shelley writes, Invention does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. By “void,” Shelley means “nothing, emptiness.” On the other hand, “chaos” is filled with unknowable substances, those same unknown bits that give rise to life or literature. What is “invention”? For over two hundred years, writers had spoken of literary creation as “invention,” its first phase “imitatio,” finding a cultural concept or well-known image upon which to base their own ingenious variations—creativity as collaboration between artist and culture, creativity as (re)production, not originality as we understand it. By Shelley’s time, “invention” was coming to mean “genius” (from “ingenium”)—to make something original or new from the void of the self’s deep well, like gods, not parents. She brings into relief a theoretical question: what is artistic originality, its consequence, its license?

Yet all these terms exist uncomfortably in her 1831 preface, mixing and remixing: is creativity the same as originality, all simply hubris? This uneasiness marks a theme in the novel: Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator, “invents” by piecing together stolen corpses in the hope of manifesting his genius to the world—he believes he’s discovered the secret of life. He believes he can create something original, like a god. I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.

Frankenstein can be read not only as a warning about the dangers of science, but as a cautionary tale of the artist’s hubris. Then there’s our hubris: my husband and I created our son thinking he would be a reflection of ourselves, a test of our own creativity. We “made” him. An animate example of our genius.

We spent 14 years trying to understand what had happened to our creation, taking him from one research neurologist to another, testing for this and for that—medical science is always advancing, morphing in different directions as new bits of information become available. When genome sequencing, a test that “reads” all three billion letters of human DNA, moved from research to clinical use, we jumped at it. By now we knew the answer lay somewhere in his genes.

While we were waiting for the sequencing results, a friend asked me, what does it matter to find a diagnosis, if there’s no cure? I could rewrite this, why bother with a draft you can’t revise?

When scientists converse, “matter” represents physical substance: whatever has mass and takes up space. When the rest of us talk, “matter” is most often an emotional state: this matters, that doesn’t matter. To say something “doesn’t matter,” however, suggests it means nothing, which might be the same as saying it doesn’t exist—“lifeless matter.” Can my son not matter to anyone, yet still have mass and take up space?

In the culture Shelley inhabited, “matter” had additional connotations. For generations, when reproduction was discussed, men were said to provide the “homunculus” (fetus) with “form,” while women provided “matter” or “substance.” Chaos, then, for her, might have been a female principle parallel to the imagination in early European psychology—the brain’s storehouse—from which the artist can withdraw and “form” material using the higher thought processes like reason and judgment. If “chaos” is creative fertility, “void” might be sterility or a creativity beyond human capacity.

In February 1953, Francis Crick burst into a Cambridge pub shouting, we have discovered the secret of life!, much to the dismay of James Watson, who worried the announcement was premature. Nevertheless, in April of 1953, Nature published Watson and Crick’s Nobel-winning paper, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.”

Scientific work never occurs in a void; it arises from the chaos of competition. Nature published several articles in its April issue under the heading, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids,” including papers by Watson and Crick’s competitors: Franklin and Gosling; Wilkins, Stokes and Wilson. Each of these scientists, along with many who came before, contributed to the big discovery. Centuries of wonder reached a pinnacle with Watson and Crick’s proof that the helix is doubled and the phosphates are on the outside, capable of reproducing per the laws of molecular chemistry.

Shelley noted that Frankenstein was inspired not just by a ghost story competition, but by the philosophical talk that summer of 1816: the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. Despite that, the question most asked of her since the novel’s 1818 publication had been, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?” The cervix dilates during childbirth—the female body as life’s gateway, but not its principle.

Few people remember that Frankenstein is framed as a seaman’s tale, elaborately nested within multiple narrations. It opens, or dilates, from the center: the abandoned monster tells his story to Victor; Victor tells that and his own story to Robert Walton (an aspiring scientist), who has rescued Victor from the polar ice across which he chases his debased creation; Walton writes it down in a letter he sends to his sister.

At the center, the monster’s own words, he wonders whether his evil results from his original nature (dead bodies) or nurture (Victor’s abandonment)—Shelley’s “hideous idea” embedded as an unresolved question about human nature, creativity and art that David Foster Wallace will echo 150 years later: The fiction always comes out so horrifically defective … a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception – yes, understand: grotesque because imperfect. And yet it’s yours, the infant is, it’s you, and you love it. Originality: whatever the imagination conceives first appears deformed, defective. Creativity: a labor of love to perfect the imperfect. Biological origin: DNA. Biological creation: the application of energy to matter, such that the resulting organism grows and breathes; gestation.

The origin of a story or of life might be a chain of linked phosphates swirling around the recombinant vortex into which these tales—Frankenstein, Infinite Jest—sink and then rise. White phosphorus glows upon exposure to oxygen, breathing the first necessary act of any newly created organism. Oxidative phosphorylation is the chemical name for the cellular respiratory chain, the body’s primary source of energy.

At the cellular level we return to a plain sense of things, the end of the creative imagination borne out as chemicals, inanimate in an inert savoir, or so goes Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Plain Sense of Things.” Stevens wrote most of the poems in The Rock (1954) during the late 1940s and early 1950s, at the height of the race to identify DNA. The poem’s first lines are:

After the leaves have fallen, we return

To a plain sense of things. It is as if

We had come to an end of the imagination,

Inanimate in an inert savoir.

The phrase “the end of the imagination” comes first, and then Stevens writes, “the absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined.” All this an odd leap of metaphysics: the admission of an end of creativity, and then the suggestion of a void—as though the answer to our existence were a secret only gods might know, something that precedes the animate, some inorganic principle that could give form to lifeless matter.

“Inanimate in an inert savoir”: French distinguishes between savoir, to know absolutely, and connaître, to understand through familiarity and suggestion. The root of savoir is to see, of connaître, to be born. Birth so intimately connected to female bodily creativity that savoir trails a sense of the masculine. What we know absolutely we know not through any ordinary human creativity. Watson, Crick, Franklin, Wilkins and the rest were obsessed with knowledge absolute. Not with what matters, but with what can be seen, observed, proven.

The first time I read Moby Dick, the professor handed us “The Plain Sense of Things,” to mull in relation to the ruinous glory of Ahab’s obsession. My husband and I persisted through years of testing, certain one day absolute data would explain to us the child whose disabilities had by now become familiar. For years, the tests came back negative or normal: with each result we were released from our worst imaginings, the worst diagnoses. We lived in the eddy of each end, and, then, each absence. The absence of the imagination had itself to be imagined. I visualized diagnosis as a whale emerging from the sea. This whale seemed too big to be seen all at once—the back, the tail, the tips of the flukes, the blow-hole, the crest of the head—each of these parts surfaces and slip-slides away back into the sea before the mind gets a fix on the glimpse.

The truth, though, was very small. Three billion nucleotides compose a single strand of DNA. On one of his chromosome 2 copies, our son inherited a point mutation from me on the PRKRA gene—a defect so rare it had been reported in the medical literature only 8 times. On the other, from my husband, there is a de novo defect on PRKRA—one nucleotide switched out for another, but a different point mutation than the variant I gave him. In genetics, “de novo” means “new; never before seen.” Entirely original. Most likely, our geneticist said, the de novo variant was the result of a gamete transcription error by my husband’s RNA, and that spermatozoa just happened to unite with my ovum. A one-in-three billion chance happening. Something from the void.

Discovering the structure of DNA meant only that scientists knew which chemical components of a cell were responsible for genetic replication. The “secret of life” can come only when we understand how each gene of DNA is encoded or wrongly coded. Then we can “read” our own history and individual life stories. While we know for which wrong proteins our son’s PRKRA gene encodes, we do not yet understand how those proteins provoke cellular chaos. We cannot stop it, nor can we revise his gene, although that day may come. Still, we persist. As David Foster Wallace said, even at the height of its hideousness the damaged infant somehow touches and awakens what you suspect are some of the very best parts of you: maternal parts, dark ones. You love your infant very much. And you want others to love it, too.

Or Shelley, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the product of happy days. Love matters, I suppose.

Genome sequencing analyzes the biochemical building blocks of each gene: adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, or ACGT. All life a four letter alphabet spelling out 23,000 active genes. Interruptions in the patterns of ACGT may cause a shift, small or large, malignant or benign, in the regulation of biochemical processes.

One analogy is with a computer: underneath programs, an operating system—under that, binary computer code composed of the numerals 1 and 0 arranged in infinitely complex patterns, that make sense and function, unless a programmer skips a 1 or inserts an extra 0.

Early modern numerology, known still in the 19th century, makes much of the resemblance of 1 and 0 to male and female genitalia, one and nothing, or “no thing.” At the end of Moby Dick, as the womb of the sea closes on the sinking ship, the final twirl of the vortex spits out a coffin, on which Ishmael floats to safety, to the ship Rachel, “in her retracing search after her missing children.” The ocean’s spiral makes a zero and the coffin shapes a one, a metaphysical reproduction undone and re-done in the wake of Ishmael’s survival. Sometimes I think of DNA’s double-helix as a 3-D dilation, a vortex opening the very language of life, a variant of art, some type of creativity beyond human capacity.

Something and nothing, four nucleotides, twenty-six letters. Three of us—Shelley, Wallace, myself—with our “hideous” texts. In the various languages of creativity and originality, it would seem my son is doomed forever. He cannot be revised or repaired—his creation a matter of happenstance and chaos. Yet he grows and breathes, has mass and takes up space—de novo, he’s entirely original, without precedence or pattern.

Pattern: if that’s what art is. Originality: whatever breaks established patterns; genius. But maybe these terms—creativity, originality, genius, pattern, matter—find commonality only when what links them is beauty, or human perfection? And beauty, the most time-worn pattern of all, can never be original—only the hideous meets that criteria. You want to sort of fool people, wrote Wallace, you want them to see as perfect what you in your heart know is a betrayal of all perfection. If the meaning of life is DNA, are beauty and perfection truly the essence of art? I hope not. What matters in art, life, science, must be attendant to both pattern and disruption. Shelley wrote, Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject: and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

What matters (what doesn’t) is human chaos, the imagination’s storehouse, the point mutation of originality. Matter cannot be revised or perfected—only its capabilities can be seized upon and transformed by (creative) energy. Otherwise, the imagination will end with inertia, in the inanimate void.

Jeneva Burroughs Stone has published poetry and hybrid essays with Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Poetry International, Colorado Review, The Collagist, Poet Lore, and others, with work forthcoming in Waxwing. Her work in nonfiction has been honored with fellowships from the MacDowell and Millay Colonies. She is a contributing editor to Pentimento: Journal of All Things Disability. A collection of linked essays and poems, MONSTER, is forthcoming from Phoenicia Publishing in the fall of 2016. “Notes on Creativity & Originality” is part of that collection. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.



¨ from his essay, “The Nature of the Fun”

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