Why Originality Doesn't ExistMonday, March 24, 2014
The truth about being original is that there is nothing original.
Everything you come up with you got from somewhere else.
I like to think that my stories are completely original. They’re my words. My creations. I imagined the characters and brought them into the world. My plots are different. No other book is quite like mine and no other writer has my personal style.
But to assume that I, or anyone for that matter, can be entirely original is erroneous.
Why is this? I call it the universal narrative. In postmodern culture, this is commonly referred to as the meta-narrative, or the common thread that provides a comprehensive expression of shared experiences. In other words, it is the overarching story made up of individual, personal stories. For example, we all experience sorrow or grief on some level. Grief displayed in Hamlet is very different than that displayed in Sylvia Plath poems. This is because of different perspective (informed from various personal events) that offers a new light on this narrative.
Every book, story, novel or play—every piece of art—tells something about life. It’s about the story we all live and share and understand through common experiences. It’s about worldview and perspective.
Because of this narrative, nothing we do is ever completely, totally, wholly 100% original.
You see, I had to learn to write by reading. So every book I’ve ever read has informed my awareness of this narrative. And I had to learn to create by living. Everything I create, even if it is what some would call “original”, it is influenced by outside factors that make me who I am. Travel. Triumphs. Setbacks. Friends. Enemies. Current Events. Media. School. Church.
We are all the products of our culture. Things like language, family background, ethnicity and religion all inform our socialization.
We are influenced by what we’ve experienced and what we consume. The bottom line is, everything we’ve ever done, everything we’ve ever seen, read, heard, touched, felt or experienced has shaped us, affected our worldview, making us the person who we are. And it impacts the way we create.
I’ve seen this to be true in my own work.
After I watched the movie Eragon, I wrote a book manuscript called Elfwood, which was an allegorical fantasy novel. It had a dragon (naturally) but it focused on a gryphon named Qwin and his human friend Jyra. While the plot itself was “new”, it was more or less a patchwork mosaic of things I’d seen that I liked. It was undoubtedly inspired by Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and Eragon. (In my defense, I was fourteen - I wrote what I knew! But don’t we all?)
After I heard about the tragedy of Phoebe Prince, a young girl who committed suicide after extreme bullying, I wrote Hang On. The story was about two high schoolers as they go through the year after their best friend’s suicide.
Yes, these books were inspired, which isn’t the same thing as not being original. But it does mean that it didn’t completely come from the creative alcove of my sub-cranium.
Oscar Wilde once said, perhaps rather cynically, "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
I don’t find this surprising. I find it to be true.
One thing I’ve heard a lot in the writing industry is “be original”. But I think this is based on false assumptions. The goal should not be originality. It should be insight.
If you’re goal is to be new, unconventional and groundbreaking, you’re likely to become frustrated. Most things I write about have been written about before. The key is offering an intuitive understanding of a particular theme or concept. What experiences do you have that set you apart from others? How might your experiences influence the way you approach the topic?
Take The Hunger Games, for example. From the outside looking in, the plot is pretty standard for dystopian novels. There is an evil government and daring young people (in love, of course!) try to stand up against inhumane leadership forces that strip the dignity and independence of the populace. This could also describe 1984. Or Divergent.
The reason this series worked so well (along with great writing style) is that Suzanne Collins offered insight on the human moral condition. I left book one with the question, “What would I do if I was in the games? Would I fight to stay alive in order to save my family?”
Insight. That’s the key. How can you offer a new perspective on this universal narrative? Themes like danger, morality, adventure and rebellion were not unique to The Hunger Games. But an arena environment reminiscent of the gladiators in which children were set to fight against each other to the death offered a new insight. How would people react under the given conditions? How would you react?
I think we should avert our focus from originality to insight. What do you have to offer that can provide a new perspective? A fresh outlook?
What’s your insight?