Originality is a tough thing to achieve. When someone is retying really hard to be original, you can tell. The product of this effort usually draws attention to the places its bucking tradition, and almost always, its an idea that’s been done before. At least, this is what happens when I try it – read anything I’ve written in the name of originality, and you can feel the desperation as it seeps through the awkward seams I’ve left behind my clumsy attempt to pull things together in a new and unique way.
When someone is actually original, it feels effortless, even if it took effort to execute, and even if its provocative. Finding the line between “challenging your audience with something new” and “just plain weird” is a little like magic.
A few weeks ago, I came across two Freshly Pressed posts on the topic of identity and originality. The first is from the blog Cats and Chocolate, called simply “Identity”, and the second is from Lark & Bloom, called “7,000 Reasons Your Uniqueness is Plagiarism”. Both articles explore the difficulty of being original. To truly be an individual is an incredible feat, and one that might not be worth chasing.
In what seems to be a contrast to these articles, Tolkien says that no two stories are the same, no matter how similar they seem. No matter what, every retelling changes a story, making it a variant at best. Word choice matters. Order matters. The outcome matters. Any little change to a story alters the general context and makes it something unique. Our identities come out whether we mean them to or not.
But I think that what this means is that best way to be original, sometimes, is to not try to be original. If you’re honest about what inspires you, what you want to copy, and what you want to be, then the unique element you bring, whether its something you can quantify or not, will shine out against that well defined background.
I think JK Rowling does this amazingly – she is very clear about the things and ideas she wants to play with from myth, religion, and fantasy. She follows the organic heroic storyline we know so well, and makes no apologies for it. She goes so far as to throw shout-outs to Tolkien (the kid named Longbottom is good with plants?) and the Greeks.
What this does is let her be honestly derivative in a way that lets her unique magic quality stand out – because it’s not mushed in and mired in the context of things which come from others, it’s just that much clearer, even if it stays unquantifiable.
I think that when we try so hard to create ourselves as special, and different, we invariably end up stamping out that part of us which is actually unique. It may not be something we can see and control. Maybe our best shot at being original is to abandon the attempt – drop the pretense, be unabashedly sincere in what we love, even if what we love is something that’s been done before, and hope that our context will allow us to combine things in a way that, ironically, allows our unique identities to shine through.