Tabula Rasa or “Blank Slate” has been with us for some two thousand years. It was first proposed Aristotle, and later expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas, and eventually John Locke. It originally applied to the idea of the mind or soul. The idea is that we are born completely blank and we are free to shape our individuality however we want. Or as some interpretations have it, we are shaped by our parents or others who wish to mold us.
The problem with the Tabula Rasa theory is that it’s false. We now know that each individual is shaped by a combination of genes and their environment. We are not born ‘blank,’ but with some predetermined individuality, personality, quirks and oddities of the mind. As we grow up, things in our environment have an impact on us, and we react.
Our reactions are partly our personality, and that personality is partly shaped by our genes. Some of our reaction might be dicated by whether or not we ate Cheerios for breakfast or woke up on the wrong side of the bed. There is both a huge genetic framework in play, and also lots of factors from our environment. Our genes themselves exercise their ‘will’ (anthropomorphism is also a popular misconception) through what is called phenotypic expression.
Pop culture’s understanding of genetics is pretty flawed, as you often read articles about a ‘gene for this’ or a ‘gene for that.’ It is a popular misconception, that there is a “gene for blue eyes” or a “gene for being gay.”
First it should be pointed out that features are not always caused by a single gene, but several genes that interact with one another. Second, the features we usually ascribe to genes are usually just phenotypic expressions of those genes. This is a little hard to explain, but there is a common equation that goes like this:
Gene + environment = phenotype.
I can’t help but think of the colors of a cat’s fur. The range of colors a cat might have is determined by the genes, but the actual colors it is born with are the phenotypic expression. What most people don’t realize is that a cat’s fur pattern is determined in the womb (environment).
So the genes might say “the fur might be coarse, and color might be somewhere between white and orange” and in the womb, an orange and white fur pattern develops and the cat looks like the 9 Lives cat food mascot, Morris.
You can see from this example, that we have what pop journalism would call a ‘gene for the Morris fur pattern.’ This is where most popular articles and reporting on the subject of genetics get it completely wrong.
It is not a gene for the Morris fur pattern. It is a gene for fur somewhere between orange and white, and the way the pattern develops in the womb just happens to spawn a little kitten with a fur pattern that looks like Morris.
That fur pattern is the phenotypic expression of the “orange-to-white” gene. It’s one pattern, from a wide variety of possible patterns. It is one permutation. And that’s all the phenotypic expression is. It’s one permutation, or one pattern, from a wide range of possibilities.
That orange-white color scheme might just as easily form in the womb as solid white and solid orange patches, creating a cat that somebody will eventually name “Patches.” Or by some fluke the orange gets minimized and the cat comes out mostly white, with a few odd or hidden orange spots.
This is why even if you clone a cat, it may be the same cat in personality, and possibly color, but the fur pattern will be different.
By now you’re probably asking yourself, “What does this have to do with writing?” I’m getting to that point, just bear with me a little bit longer.
One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Tabula Rasa theory is that it has held popularity in the 20th and even 21st Century. To this day, people still believe that individuals are born ‘blank’ like empty vessels, ready to be molded. This misconception is so strong that it has many authors and intellectuals concerned for public awareness on the topic.
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker even wrote a book dedicated to the topic, aptly titled Blank Slate. As evolutionary psychology would have it, our minds are the product of our genes, our environment, and millions of years of evolution. In other words, there is no blank slate, and there never could be.
How does this apply to creativity or writing?
Much like the popular misconception that people start as a blank slate, it is often assumed or even taught that all forms of creativity start as a blank slate. When you sit down to write a novel, you are staring at a blank page, and you must spontaneously create something out of nothing. When a painter primes a fresh canvas, they too must magically evoke something out of nothing.
But here’s the key, where the misconception lies. You can’t paint a masterpiece, or write a novel, out of nothing. For one you need the physical ingredients, such as paint or a computer. Then you need the mental ingredients, which are ideas or thoughts. Just like the keyboard or the paint brushes don’t appear out of nowhere, the thoughts and ideas don’t appear out of nowhere either. You either already had them, or something inspired you to have them. They came from somewhere. It’s an evolutionary, organic process, one that I talked about a while back in a post called Visualization & Growing a Story.
Here’s the thing; Most writers block is created by the Myth of Tabula Rasa. People get stuck because they think they’re supposed to spawn something out of nothing. We stare at the blank pages, the blank canvases, and we become overwhelmed with the enormous ‘magical’ task of simply making something appear. We take upon ourselves the burden of being wizards and magicians. We must make something appear in a puff of smoke, or like pulling a rabbit from a hat. And when we can’t do this, we say to ourselves, “Well, my magic must be a little weak today.”
But it’s not magic! It never was, and never will be! Creativity doesn’t just magically appear. A masterpiece doesn’t just magically appear. It might take years of work, and trying out different ideas. And those ideas don’t magically appear either. They come from our experiences and our inspirations. Inspiration itself, is not magical.
We watch a movie, read a book, or have a conversation with a friend. In the course of that we become fixated on some idea, something we like. Some piece of substance that we find fascinating. We hold onto it. We digest it. As we do other things, we begin to notice this idea in other places. In other books, in other movies. We follow this idea around, and see where it appears. We think about the true nature of this pet concept, and why we think it’s so cool. When it comes time to be creative, we put our own twist on the idea, we create our own interpretation. We find new or unexpressed things, and we express them.
That idea is like a gene. The big wide world of books, movies, television, and video games is one environment. When we create, we discover our own phenotypic expression of that idea. In the 1970s somebody even gave a name to notion that ideas were like genes. His name was Richard Dawkins and he called it a meme. Memes, he hypothesized, are the idea equivalent of genes. Ideas act like genes too. The strong ones surive and propogate. Ideas evolve just like genes do. They change over time, in response to their environment.
The point here is that we never really start with nothing. We always start with a seed, or a little DNA of our ideas and concepts. This idea evolves and grows. It may have brothers or sisters out there on the bookshelves, but this version of the idea is ours because we make it ours. The DNA of our ideas is shaped, interestingly enough, by our own DNA. It is shaped by our own DNA that exists in the form of our unique personalities and our unique minds.
Does this suggest that ideas are alive? In the physical sense, no. In the metaphorical sense, yes. Or you could think of ideas like a virus. Is a virus an animal? Not really. Does it ‘live’ in the sense that it sustains itself, copies, or duplicates itself? Yes.
What does this mean for creativity?
The next time you are blocked, or find yourself intimidated when starting a new creative piece because you’re ‘blank’ or staring at the ‘blank page,’ remember, the page is never blank. Your mind is never blank. You’re not expected to create something out of nothing, because that’s just not how creativity works.
Don’t let the myth of the Tabula Rasa threaten your creativity. Creativity always starts somewhere, with a seed, or an idea. If you don’t have any ideas, it just means you need to find some. Finding an idea somewhere is easier than performing a feat of magic, isn’t it? Finding a starting point is easier than making a novel spontaneously appear, isn’t it? All you need is a starting point. With a starting point, you simply grow from there.
You’re not a blank slate, and your work is not blank either. Find a seed, plant it, water it, nurture it, and grow it. You just might find that creativity isn’t so difficult as everyone would have you believe.