Denying Categories

Lobster PicPhoto Credit: Newly molted shell of spiny lobster at point of molting. Like the lobster, writers must shed the shell of convention for a new one in order to grow creatively. From D. R. Crawford and W. J. J. De Smidt, 1923, Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington: BMacZeroBot/Wikimedia Commons/BD UWash FMIB

“Creativity is in itself a denial of categories, dogmas, and set values.” (Nin, Chap. 3, location 1260)

I like to share Nin’s quote for author events because I think it points to one of the most exciting aspects of creativity. Writers are rebels because their work defies compartmentalization in dead social conventions and ideals.

In her book on writing, The Novel of the Future, Nin talks a lot about the unconscious and how it works to unearth the psychological reality important to psychological fiction. But the unconscious defies conventions because it is uncensored and this allows writers to explore ideas that are true to them:

“For creativity it is necessary to work with the unconscious which accumulates pure experience, reactions, impressions, intuitions, images, memories—an unconscious freed from the negative effect of societal evaluations.” (Nin, Chap. 1, location 430)

In other words, the unconscious is the place where our inner life, free from the constraints of social norms, goes wild. Therefore, it is where categories, dogmas and set values do not exist. As Nin points out, “[t]he creative writer is the one who teaches expansion and liberation of the human mind” (Nin, Chap. 7, location 3072).

One of the godfathers of method acting, Constantin Stanislavsky, made this point as well. As I discuss on my blog post about fantasy and imagination, he believed the unconscious held the key to imaginative freedom:

“Our freedom on this side of the threshold [i.e., the conscious mind] is limited by reason and conventions; beyond it, our freedom is bold, willful, active and always moving forwards.’ ” (p. 304; emphasis original)

Stanislavsky taught his students that accessing the unconscious mind would lead to a truer depiction of character.

Writers deny categories not only through the unconscious but also the imagination. Imagination opens the door to new possibilities, to new ideas that have never existed before. By definition, conventions have existed for a long time as fixed ideas and assumptions many people believe are true. The imagination is another place where new realities and truths form. Nin makes a great analogy between the writer who rebels against old ideas and the lobster that replaces its shell:

“[The creative process] is as continuous as that of the growing lobster which sheds its shell periodically as it continues to grow. Some people prefer to shrink themselves to fit the shell they are used to.” (Nin, Chap. 3, location 1215)

For a writer to develop, then, he or she must shed old conventions in order to discover new ones rather than remain in his or her safe space where the only option is limitation of body, spirit, and soul.

Writers defy the clichés that tie us to the monotony of life. We’re familiar with clichés in language, of course, but they also extend to thoughts, ideas, reactions, and emotions. Writers rebel against these clichés when they take their work on a different path. As Nin points out, “[a] certain daring, a questioning of the cliché is necessary to creation and innovation” (Nin, Chap. 3, location 1215). Here’s a list of books where the writers have taken some of the most cliché situations (such as someone being a vegetarian or a growing boy) and turn them into something fabulous, frightening, and intriguing.

Defying life clichés isn’t only seeing social conventions and situations with a fresh eye but also reviving them. We’ve all been reprimanded by English teachers who have hammered into our heads not to use clichés in our writing because they are boring. But the idea of a cliché is that it was once fresh and new but the freshness died from overuse. Writers go against clichés because “[t]he process of creativity is this daring escape from conventional patterns, not because they are conventional but because they are dead, used up” (Nin, Chap. 4, location 2351; emphasis added). Writers resuscitate old ideas through their creativity.

Similarly, Stanislavsky, in his seminal book An Actor Prepares had a similar idea for actors. He spoke of clichés in acting rather than writing, insisting “[t]here is no place for theatrical conventionality in true creative art…” (pg. 113). He detested what he called “mechanical acting” or the stereotypical gestures and behaviors of character according to theater conventions. In An Actor Prepares, his hypothetical director tells his students:

“‘Time and constant habit make even deformed and senseless things near and dear. As for instance, the time-honoured shoulder-shrugging of Opéra Comique, old ladies trying to look young, the doors that open and close by themselves as the hero of the play comes in or goes out.’” (Stanislavsky, pg. 26)

To combat this, Stanislavsky recommended his students use their imagination, since “‘External conventions and lies—that is what clips your wings. What soars is: imagination, feeling, thought’” (Stanislavsky, pg. 171).

It may not always seem that writers are defying categories, dogmas, and set values in their writing, especially with genres that have a more rigid formula for their stories, such as mysteries and romance fiction. But it is the ability to shed the old shells of the lobster that turns writers, actors, musicians, painters, and other artists into rebels.

Works Cited

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.

Stanislavsky, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Aristophanes Press, 2015 (original publication date 1936). Kindle digital file.




2 thoughts on “Denying Categories

  1. This is excellent. I like your view of it. Smashing through cliches, accessing the subconscious and its collective wisdom (and drawing attention to its fallacies too). My style is to take tropes and then think about the implications of them. What if they were real? What would that mean? How might they be “real,” and what are the implications for their effects in a world if they are?


    1. Hi Sable,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Your questions are all great ones and I think you bring out an excellent point about tropes. We accept them as a given but are they really a given? Questioning tropes is also part of what creativity is about in my eyes :-).


      Liked by 1 person

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