Art, Originality and the Original Art of Good Writing

A little something different this week. Instead of answering a question I will be talking about a sticking point for most writers. However, as with previous posts, the comment on which it is based has been posted on an online writing forum and I will tackle it in much the same way.

Statement: I think, right now, that the problem with writing these days is originality. Yes, past writers were genius to make such readable works of art, but such advancements are preventing the rest of us from writing something different. Likewise, we are doing the same – and everyone dislikes clichés.

This is a statement that is not too dissimilar from the sort of thing I used to say some years ago when I first started committing myself to my writing. We all believe it at one point or another; that writing is art and art, being the beautiful and pure thing that it is, can only be truly called art if it is powerful and, above all else, original.

There comes a time in everyone’s writing career where they are striving to create something original. We think of the great authors of the past: Asimov, Clarke, Shelley, Christie. We see what they produced and we think to ourselves, ‘those people created real art – those people created something original’.

Point Number One – Something doesn’t have to be original to be art.

The most scathing review I ever had was from someone who, for reasons known only to herself, decided to write the worst review she could for one of my stories. This review, whilst deciding from the outset that it was going to be negative, didn’t actually contain what I considered to be a single bad comment about my writing or the story I had produced. In fact, the only thing the review really did say was that they didn’t think my work was original and therefore it wasn’t good.

This prompted one major thought for me. I felt, and I mean this sincerely, sorry for the reviewer in many ways. If this person can only truly enjoy things that are original then their life must be severely lacking in enjoyment.

We have  all heard the old saying – there are only seven original stories in existence (or six or twelve depending on who is telling this to you). And it’s true. The vast majority of the stories you have read are not original. I could even guarantee you that some of the stories that you think are original are not in fact original. In fact, the only way to really achieve what we would casually call ‘originality’ is by taking an established idea and subverting it in some way. Maybe we subvert it by changing the location, maybe we change the character dynamics, maybe we change the structure or we update it to make it more relevant to events today.

Subverting the form is, and always has been, the way to develop true art. You take what has happened before and you move it in a new direction some how.

Point Two – Originality is unoriginal

We write by our experiences and by our imagination, and unfortunately our imagination is very much influenced by our experiences. This is true of all things, even our dreams. Scientists even suggest that the random people who appear in our dreams (you know the people you’ve never seen before but arrive fully formed in your head) are actually people you have subconsciously seen at some point in your life. Maybe it was someone in the background on the television, or some person you didn’t notice when you past in the street… Who it is doesn’t matter.

What matters is that our brain has stored what we would probably assume to be irrelevant information and has played it back to us in the form of dreams or imagination. What matters is this suggestion that our brains may not even be capable of creating an entirely original person. And if we can’t even create an original person, how can we ever hope to create an original story?

Back to statement in question.

This person is suggesting that good writing can only be achieved by originality. He suggests that this lack of originality is why writing is bad. Now, there are several things that you could pick out from this very short statement, but the thing that was most apparent to me was that this was a person who was basically asking how they could be expected to be a good writer if they couldn’t come up with an original idea…

And I understand where he is coming from.

As I said, this was not too dissimilar to something I used to say. I got bogged down in this idea of originality as well. I spent years trying to perfect a way of generating original ideas and writing in original ways and, if I do say so myself, I got quite good at it. But not a single one of those ideas ever got sold and, if I am brutally honest with myself, not a single one of those ideas ever produced good writing…

Why?

Because I was so fixated with this idea that good equals original that I completely ignored the fact that the writing itself is just as important as the story. I wasted so much time trying to come up with original ideas that I completely forgot to create good ideas.

I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t try to be an original writer, concentrate on being a good writer and let your talent guide you to where you should be.

Every week I will be scouring the internet for writers’ questions to try to answer in my posts. If you have a specific question that you would like my opinion on, please leave it in the comments section and I will address it in a future post. 

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