Existential Pancakes

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about so called ‘original work’, and certain questions have occurred to me. For example:

  • Who decides whether a thing is original, and what makes it so?
  • Can anyone do something original or does it take a certain type of person?
  • If we’re all unique individuals, and creativity springs from ourselves, can things be unoriginal?
  • What if someone does something that’s original for them but which has already been done somewhere in the world, at some time. Does that make it not original? And if so how can we possibly know every thing that every person has ever done in order to declare originality?
  • How far do we go in our definition of originality? By this I mean, if we took one story, do we stay fairly on the surface: no-one’s written about a man who hangs himself and his spirit stays nearby to either prevent or encourage the same thing happening again. Digging a bit deeper: a fiction story about ghosts being attached to trees, well, there are myths about that sort of thing, but this is a bit of a new angle. Further still: love affair gone bad, who hasn’t written about that?

So someone says to you; ‘write something new, like nothing that’s been written before.’ You find a pen and reasonably clean page in your notebook, or open a new document, your fingers hovering over the keys. Nothing. Then out of nowhere you have a flash of something and start scribbling. When you’ve finished, you look over your work. In the first place, congratulations if you can read it and it makes any kind of sense! Now what have you ended up with? Something old, something transformed or re-imagined? Something new. Maybe a mishmash of an idea from here, a technique from there, a bit of that thrown in. . .

From personal experience I know that if you get feedback which says something along the lines of:

“Break the mould; show us something new by putting your own unique twist on popular storylines.”

It leaves you wondering; just how exactly am I meant to do that? I thought I’d managed pretty well. . . So you go back to look again at your story and end up asking yourself, do you really want to go through and make alterations which will change the whole thing, mean you have to re-write practically every word? Maybe you should just start afresh. And yet you can hit exactly the same problem, because you can’t guarantee that whatever you come up with is going to be thought ‘original’ enough. It doesn’t matter if it’s new to you. It only counts if it’s similar to something they’ve read. So you read more of whatever type of writing you’re attempting, only you can’t get through everything, and even if you read it all, who’s to say you’d remember it? Or that studying what’s gone before would help you come up with something different.

Despite what it may sound like, I’m not advocating giving up. I’m saying persevere, have patience, and remember that just because something is new to you, doesn’t mean it’s new to anyone else. Which also doesn’t mean that no-one would like to read your work just because one person told you it’s not original enough. If it’s written in your voice, it’ll be different from anything else. People don’t stop reading ghost stories because lots are similar, watching police dramas when they’re all solving crimes, or following blogs when there’s hundreds about any one subject. In fact people keep on reading them because they’re interested in or like that sort of thing. And if you can bring your own twist to something. . . look at how romance got supernatural, or can be made humorous. How serious true-life events can be lightened with hope, or humour, however dark they may be. Writers are encouraged to break the rules these days, and that can lead to all sorts of creative possibilities.

So I’m going to eat my existential pancakes now and say that original work is not only possible, but is going on – to varying degrees perhaps, but happening all the same – all over the world, right this minute. Because to be perfectly honest, to claim otherwise is not only insulting, limiting, and showing an amazing lack of faith in humanity, but it’s just plain depressing!

Not to mention untrue!

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