Why Censorship Can Be Good for Creativity

Censorship destroys ideas. Take, for example, a creative writing workshop where a small group deems a topic offensive and out of bounds. When that happens, a line is drawn, and the room for exploration is limited. Ideas that could’ve been will never be. In this new world where we’re redefining how we should speak and what subjects are appropriate, we writers need to walk that fine line without stepping on others. 

This type of sensitivity within a trusting group doesn’t only harm writing workshops but also workplaces, friendships, and even families. When one side is considered correct and the other wrong, even in the realm of creativity and art, the fun of creation is gone. But is it? 

In an interview with J Thorn on the Writers, Ink podcast, author Chuck Palahniuk describes how this type of censorship caused the demise of a writing group he had been a part of that lasted almost thirty years. 

“It’s a tragedy,” said Palahniuk, “but nothing lasts forever.” 

Values, words, or perspectives that you considered appropriate today can be offensive in the future. All it takes is a culture shift. 

Palahniuk recalled that after 9/11, transgressive fiction fell out of favor. Transgressive fictions are stories that focus on characters that feel oppressed by conformity and the expectations of society. Stories like Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and, of course, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (Amazon) are all examples of transgressive fiction. 

In early 2000, the culture no longer wanted to be associated with a whole genre — not just a word, but an entire creative style. These novels suddenly looked terrorist-y, and anyone reading them would appear to be promoting real-world violence. Authors were worried about being labeled terrorists because of themes in their books, much like how someone today can come across as racist, sexist, homophobic, or body-shaming because they used a word or phrase. Transgressive fiction faded from the shelves, but as Palahniuk illuminated, in its place came horror fiction. 

Photo by Freddy Kearney on Unsplash

Transgressive fiction also fell out of style at the end of the ‘60s. While serial killers such as Charles Manson and the Zodiac killer were terrorizing society, the public tried to come to terms with those events. This climate led to a slew of paranormal horror, slasher, and thriller movies. When there is a void, creativity will fill that space. People will always be curious about the darkness within a person’s soul. And while some genres make it raw and blatant, horror focuses less on the subject and more on the emotions during those frightening times.

Those who wrote transgressive fiction to share their message could now communicate through horror. Horror fiction acts as a cloak for those darker themes without directly reflecting the realism of current events. 

We can approach all censorship the same way. 

“A certain amount of censorship is creative,” said Palaniuk. “Because it does allow writers to veil their message. So their message needs to be a little more indirect.” 

Should your work ever be targeted by censorship, know that it’s not a war you could win. Instead, learn to cloak your message so it’s palatable for a greater audience. Your idea gets shared, but it’s not a confronting act. 

Give it a shot. If you’re exploring a topic that is frowned upon — something you wouldn’t talk about at a party — something political, religious, or your readership would be sensitive to, try to hide the message below the surface. Make your point without screaming it at the top of your lungs. Refrain, cloak, and see if you can write great work that makes a point without doing more harm. 

There is a lot of evil out in the world today. Although censorship might not be the cure for all of it, censorship can be a bandage that helps people heal. You don’t need to be the one to pull it off. But you can tell your story without causing scars. Do that by masking your message within another genre and allowing your creativity to conceal the reality of our troubled times. That way, you can convey your ideas and explore the topic you’re interested in, and nobody gets hurt in the process. 

Good art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Good art does not do unnecessary damage. Learn to dance with censorship and see it not as the enemy of creativity but as a road less traveled. 

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5 Productivity Tips For New Creative Writers

New creative writers, if you’re struggling to find the balance between living life and writing, I’m with you. I’ve been chipping away for a while, and most recently, I got into a good writing flow, producing a lot of work and making solid progress. I wrote these five tips as a reminder for myself in those moments when I need to grind, but I hope you get value from them, as well.

1. Don’t Wait:

If you’re waiting for the perfect time to write? Don’t. A perfect time may never come. You’ll need to work with imperfect time. The time you can sneak in. That’s the best way to finish a big project, bit by bit, a little every day. Be consistent, and over the course of a year, those hours will add up, and you will look back and see the progress you’ve made. But you won’t make any progress if you wait.

2. Always Be Learning:

At many points in the journey, you’ll feel doubt, like an imposter, but I assure you, those feelings are normal. In those moments, don’t be discouraged. Stay humble. There is no secret formula for what you’re pursuing, and it’ll take experimentation: trial and error. Through the successes and the failures, you’ll learn. And from there, your craft will improve. Have compassion for yourself and always be learning.

3. Schedule It In:

When working on a personal project, you’ll need free time. The thing about free time is that it can fill up fast if you don’t prepare for it. When Saturday comes along, and you don’t have any commitment, it’s easy to get distracted by chores, errands, and outings with friends. While you can still do those things, you must set aside time to work on what you had wanted to do all week. Be disciplined with the time you’ve set aside for your side project. Schedule it in. If you find that your free hours are constantly slipping away, mark them down in your calendar and block them off.

Photo by Zan on Unsplash

4. Set Small Milestones:

Chipping away at a big writing project can mean going days and weeks without seeing any progress in your work. That can be discouraging. Too many days where you feel like you’re going in a circle can cause you to quit. But don’t. Instead, take a step back and view your project as a whole. Then break it up into smaller, manageable milestones that you can hit on a foreseeable deadline. Once your start reaching milestones, you gain confidence and see progress. By seeing progress, you will have evidence that you can achieve your goals

5. Be Unborable:

In any Rocky movie, the training montage is the shortest part of the film. When in fact, it should have been the longest part of the film. Imagine if Stallone decided to make that sequence in real time. You’d probably be bored. That’s the thing about training: it’s long and tedious. But it’s an essential part of the journey. Life is not a movie, and you can’t just have Eye of the Tiger playing in the background, and once the song is over, you’ll have reached the next level. You cannot expect your work to exist in a short montage burst. You must be present, enduring the struggle, battling the bureaucracy, and overcoming the boredom of work.

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How Do You Make Something So Bad It’s Good?

When there’s a fight scene in a cartoon, exaggerated kicks and punches with “POW!” and “KABLAM!” popping up are expected. 

Or if you’re watching a cartoon and there’s a horror scene and the monster eats the cheerleader — and her body is bloodied and gushing. That’s all right. 

Or you’re watching a cartoon of a detective standing over a dead body, realizing a critical piece of evidence on the crime scene. And when he pulls off his glasses and says — “Well, I guess he died of a broken heart!” — that won’t be too jarring. 

However, when these scenes are happening in a live-action movie or television show, with actors portraying these exaggerated characters, you can describe this experience as campy. 

Cartoons are inherently over-emphasized. That is the nature of the medium. A key principle of animation, after all, is “exaggeration”. However, when we watch real people in the real world, behaviour and emotions are often dialed down. Generally speaking, people are subtle. 

Subtly is great! Subtly is The Godfather saying, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” without causing us to cringe. 

Subtly is in Gone with the Wind when Clark Gable says “Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn!” and we feel the pain. 

Subtly is the snow globe falling out of Charles Foster Kane’s hand and being an emphasis without it being exaggerated. 

The refined nature of a subtle performance or design is often regarded as high art, and it can be associated with a bit of pretentiousness. 

As you can already tell, campy is the opposite. Campy is not subtle. Campy is flashy. Campy is exaggerated. And because of this, it’s often perceived as being in bad taste or ironic. 

The argument against camp is that it’s the result of incompetence and inexperience. If they can’t do it well, so they’ll do it bad. To say you’re trying to make something campy is to say that you want to make something poorly by being ostentatious, sensational, and excessive. That’s why many campy cult classics are described as being “so bad it’s good.” 

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Proponents of campiness will tell you that the style, in fact, challenges the audience, pushing them to experience the genre, theme, aesthetic, and milieu in an unfamiliar way. It’s not trying to replicate life, it’s attempting to stretch the boundary of our comfort and security. It allows us to lower the mask of seriousness we constantly hold up to the world. 

For many years, “camp” was the style adopted by the gay culture. It was a catalyst to have a deeper conversation about the narrow-mindedness that a middle-class society could often trap itself in. 

In Susan Sontag’s essay entitled “Notes on “Camp” [Amazon], she describes camp as the love for the unnatural. It is not fake elegance but rather a surreal occurrence of beauty, and it can be applied with intention.

Today, there is a slight difference in usage between the terms: campy and camp. “Campy” describes the misuse of an exaggerated element in a piece, while “camp” is a well-thought design emphasis or aspect that offers an unconventional view.   

It’s this gray area that causes many campy works to be so polarizing. Was The Room by Tommy Wiseau a masterpiece created by a visionary of camp? Or was it a troubled project built upon rudimentary plot devices and unfit performances? 

Yes, while it’s common for critics to hate campy entertainments, audiences often flock to them. 

Horror is one of the most popular genres that thrive on camp. One reason is that we go in not taking it too seriously. We watch horror movies through a cartoon lens, distancing ourselves from the actors on the screen and accepting that those people aren’t real, and their certain demise will not be a tragedy. We can just sit back and enjoy the blood and gore. 

Of course, not all horrors rely on camp. Some resemble the anxiousness of reality. Slow and tense.  That’s a physiological thriller. That’s Silence of the Lamb. That’s not an amusement ride the way a campy horror movie is. 

Audiences love campy movies because it’s not serious. It’s fun — and the moment you start analyzing it is the moment you kill the spirit. However, people are smart, and they can often tell if an element of camp was intentionally added or if it was a clumsy mistake. 

A poorly dubbed movie. An out-of-placed romance. An over-the-top fight scene. 

Campiness can also ruin an experience when the audience’s expectations are not met. They would wonder what was going on if the actor gives an exaggerated performance in a moment that was supposed to feel real.

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

That’s why campiness is best done with the audience in mind. You cannot throw a campy element into a piece and expect everyone to respond in the same way. Campiness, in its nature, is a bright color or an eye-catching pattern. So when you use it, make sure it’s pointing the attention at the right thing, because the viewers will notice. 

So, let’s get back to the ultimate question. How do you make something so bad it’s good? There is no secret formula. But being purposeful with camp is certainly one strategy. 

When you’re judging a piece of work, ask what criteria you’re using to evaluate it. Those that will criticize a movie as campy are those looking for elevated conventional traits. Anything outside of those bounds is deemed bad. They’re comparing it to great movies of the past. However, a good campy movie isn’t like anything they’ve seen before. 

Those who appreciate a campy movie are analyzing it through a completely different lens. They are seeking something outside of convention. A novel ride or the surrealness of beauty. If you want to reach this crowd, ask what hasn’t existed before and then bring it to life — and make it fabulous. 

Campy has a bad connotation. And it’s not fair, because while something may not be to your taste, it may also not be made for you. So whenever you see camp, ask yourself, “What is the artist trying to portray?” Examine whether it’s done intentionally to make a statement or to give you a surreal experience. Or perhaps it was just a sloppy exaggeration. 

Entertainment is riddled with camp. The longer you search, the more you will find. By seeking out camp, you begin to recognize your own taste for genre and style. How can you use camp to highlight a point in your next story? 

And for more in this series, check out these articles here:

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