A Problem of Our Own Creation

by Jaimie Carvalho

This is an average, rainy Tuesday night. In a classroom on the second floor of Stokes Hall, a group of Boston College students, myself included, gather to survey the submitted works of other students, students who have, anonymously, chosen to subject themselves to the opining of Stylus. It always starts just the same: with all those group members, affectionately called “Stylites,” who have gotten the email communicating a place and time for this gathering, along with the few new would-be Stylites looking to try a new campus club on for size, sitting at desks arranged in a circle to allow for easy conversation. As ever, three extra desks sit in the center of the circle, pulled together to hold packets of stories and poems, sheet after stapled sheet of Times New Roman 12-point font, beside the bags of chips and containers of cookies and cans of soda that serve as fuel, as food for thought, or, often, as bribes to bring some of the more hungry Stylites out of their dorm rooms on nights like these, when rain is falling and darkness blankets campus, when dripping umbrellas lay on the floor beside plastic rain boots in the midst of a not-quite-springtime storm. This is an average, rainy Tuesday night – but something big is about to happen: here, in this room, judgment is about to fall on creativity.

“Welcome, Stylites,” rings the voice of the club’s editor-in-chief promptly at 8 o’clock. “Let’s get started by going around the circle and introducing ourselves. Say your name, year, major, and your answer to tonight’s ice breaker question when we get to you.” This is a Stylus tradition, this introduction – even on nights when no new Stylites have breached the group’s borders, even when nobody is in need of introductions, this little ritual is performed just the same. The ice breaker questions are the only bit that ever changes – but they certainly do keep the dialogue interesting enough, ranging from “If you had to get stuck in the world of one TV show, which would you choose?” to “What is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for you?” Sometimes the questions are silly, seemingly meant only to elicit giggles. Sometimes they’re more serious, meant, instead, to truly help students get to know one another just a little bit better. Always, though, they’re meant to foster camaraderie and comfort in the group setting.

On this particular Tuesday night, the ice breaker question is, “If you could teach your pet any trick at all, what would you teach them to do?” This is, undoubtedly, one of the sillier questions. “I don’t have a pet,” says one Stylite, “but since we’re being unrealistic anyway, I would teach my pet giraffe to carry my backpack to class for me.” Another Stylite would teach his pet monkey to walk his pet dog; another says, chuckling, that she would teach her pet cat to type up the stories she dictates – this particular answer elicits a few good laughs because, people seem to agree, if that doesn’t make her a proper writer, nothing will.

Once the ice breaker questions have made their rounds, the group gets down to business in just the same way it has since its founding in 1882—a date which, by the way, makes it Boston College’s oldest club (bcstylus). In the beginning, it was a publication comprised of poems and short stories, just as it is today, plus interviews and current events; the latter two parts broke away some decades later with the founding of The Heights. Until 1950, Stylus commissioned art, but once Boston College gained a fine arts department, the magazine started to include the art of undergraduate students (de Bernardo). Today’s magazine runs similarly, accepting both the literary and the visual artwork of undergrads.

Generally, meetings are dedicated to one of two categories: literature, which encompasses both prose and poetry, or art, which encompasses painting, photography, drawing, and countless other forms of visual art. This particular Tuesday night has been dedicated to literature. With packets of poetry and prose set in front of them, lines of black on white that span pages upon pages, Stylites set off to business as usual. If the work called into question is prose, members read it to themselves; should it be poetry, the piece is read aloud by a volunteer so everyone can hear and appreciate the sound of the work. After one read-through, pieces are open for group discussion. Any group member is allowed to render an opinion on a piece, to pose and answer questions, and to try to sway other people’s votes, with only one exception – “the dead cat rule,” which states that, if you are privy to insider knowledge about the meaning of a piece, you should not tell the group; if members cannot tease out a topic on their own, that inability should factor into the voting process. The “dead cat” terminology, by the way, comes from a recurring example that falls somewhere between morbid and laughable: if you or your friend wrote a piece, and therefore you know it is about a dead cat, you should not say so.

Art meetings work in much the same manner as literature meetings; even if the means are different, the end is the same. In art meetings, an art editor tells the group the name and medium of a piece then projects it onto a screen in the front of the classroom for all group members to see. Like works of writing, the artworks are then open to group discussion, the dead cat rule still firmly in play. Once everyone who has an opinion has voiced it, the editor’s voice rings, “Are we all feeling individually settled?” and, just like that, voting commences. Any member who has attended at least three Stylus meetings at any time in their Boston College career is allowed to vote (on this particular Tuesday night, one senior girl attended the meeting who hadn’t been to Stylus since having attended two meetings during her freshman year – she was allowed to vote). “All those in favor?” prompts the editor, and then, after counting the yes votes, “All those opposed?” A simple majority in favor results in the call, “This piece is in the magazine,” while a majority swinging the opposite way results in the call, “This piece is not in the magazine.”

The practice of openly commenting and voting on pieces raises an interesting question: is creativity intrinsically and inherently worthwhile, or is it worthwhile only when a group agrees that it is? How, in short, can something so individualistic as creativity be judged by any group outside the self, and is that judgment the only thing that validates creativity? Eminence, the state of being superior to and distinguished from the works of others in a certain field, argues Michael Hanchett Hanson, is the most common way to measure creativity, and yet, as he points out, this method may not be apt because it often fails to recognize works in progress and revolutionary ideas which may be too far from the judges’ norms to receive any positive attention. Works of “unproven value,” then, run the risk of getting passed over.

Because many of the people who submit works to Stylus for judgment are also group members, and therefore are in the room while their works are reviewed and voted on, this question becomes especially charged. I can say from personal experience, and from the experiences of friends, that having a piece you wrote reviewed makes for rather a strange moment. Suddenly, questions are cropping up left and right—you wonder whether you should give your opinion, whether you should vote, or whether you should just stay silent and not vote, and, if you do, whether you should handle other pieces in the same way every once in a while so that your apparent lack of opinion does not seem suspicious enough to identify you as the writer of one particular piece.

“It’s never easy,” says one group member who has been attending Stylus meetings since arriving at Boston College and has submitted a few works of her own to the magazine for judgment; for the purpose of this study, I will call this girl Elyse. On this particular Tuesday night, Elyse says, one of her poems was actually reviewed by the group – unsuccessfully. “You put a lot of work into these things,” she continues, “and… you’re so proud of what you’ve done, and you send it off to the magazine with a smile and big hopes and then this happens. You get to the meeting and you see what you wrote in the packet for the night and you’re already nervous, and when they’re reading it, your heart’s pounding. I’ve never voted on my own stuff, but then, when it comes down to that moment when he [the editor-in-chief] says, ‘All those opposed?’ and you just know most people are raising their hands, you wish you had voted. It’s like what you wrote and what you were really proud of is actually bad and you’re only just figuring that out.”

In situations such as these, when anonymous works of creativity and art are being judged by a panel of outsiders, that panel rarely considers “the challenges of failure…—for example, anxiety, despair, alienation, social displacement, [and] sudden identity shifts” (Hanchett Hanson 20). Quickly, with just a single ill-advised comment or negative voting outcome, the tone of a Stylite’s night can change, the camaraderie fostered in the introduction phase of the meeting giving way to the sting of what may feel like failure. Anonymity, though, is a precaution meant to keep us from connecting works to the authors we’ve come to know through ice breaker questions and Tuesday nights spent together. According to the philosopher Michel Foucault, people should not search for the “origins of creativity”—no link should be made between the author as a person and the author as an agent; in other words, we should not try to understand texts by understanding those who wrote them (Hanchett Hanson 21). The absence of a name, then, forces us to recognize that creativity is a trait a person possesses, but it is not a person in itself, and should not be judged as one.

“Sometimes, I wish I could just step back from my own stuff,” says another Stylite, who I will call Dmitri, who has been regularly attending Stylus meetings and, in his time with the group, has submitted quite a few of his works of his own. Even now that he has forged personal relationships with fellow group members, he still has trouble stepping back from his own work and not getting too personally invested. “I know that, when I’m reviewing other people’s work, I don’t really care who wrote what, and I know that other people don’t care whether or not I wrote what I wrote. It’s just human, though, I think, to get a little paranoid when it is your work that’s up for discussion.” Easier said than done, then, to separate author from work.

This difficulty of separating person from author perhaps explains why Stylus has another rule—“Constructive criticism only”—which nebulously translates to: “The writer is probably in the room and we really shouldn’t crush them or their work.” Still, achieving a balance is important both for reviewers and for writers. Reviewers must remember that, sometimes, their words can be taken very personally; at the same time, they need to remember that it is their duty as a Stylite to give constructive criticism which will help writers grow. Writers, on the other hand, need to remember Foucault’s idea that “the writer of fiction was not trying to achieve unfettered self-expression” (Hanchett Hanson 22), but, rather, that “[i]n writing, the point is… creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears” (Foucault). Opinions on creativity differ; while outside groups may not ever be ideal for judging subjective creativity, sometimes it is still helpful to hear a range of opinions. Stylus, at the end of the day, is just one group of people. As such, their votes decide only what is in their magazine—not what is intrinsically good or worthwhile. And that, I think, should be stated at every meeting, for every Stylite to hear.

Works Cited

bcstylus [BC Stylus]. Tumblr.com. Tumblr, Inc., n.d. Web. 8 April 2013.

de Bernardo, Andrew. “Stylus is a landmark through the years: Answering the questions about     the journal in existence since 1882.” The Heights. The Heights, Inc., 21 September 1998.             Web. 10 April 2013.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” 1969. PDF file.

Hanchett Hanson, Michael. “Author, Self, Monster: Using Foucault to Examine Functions of       Creativity.” Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 33.1 (2013): 18-31.    Web. 15 April 2013.