“It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville
Melville, Melville, Melville. Admittedly, I’ve only read Moby Dick… well, most of Moby Dick. He really wasn’t too prolific in his day. I am intrigued by his life story, though. He was one of those “explorers” who sailed the world and really got a chance to observe life. If nothing else, he was headstrong and sure of his moral compass. He even criticized the Christian missionaries in Hawaii who were likely less than gentle in their efforts to “convert the heathens.” In his community, I’m sure that was something people just didn’t do.
I think I would have been a kindred spirit to Mr. Melville… well, we would at least have had some common ground on the topic of originality. I like to think of him as a stubborn writer who knew what he wanted to create and faltered when he tried to veer from that. Maybe that’s when the above quote came to life. Well, even if it’s not the truth, I like to think of it that way. Perhaps he felt pressure to write/create based upon somebody else’s desires, rather than his own. And the experience left a foul taste in his mouth.
Wow, Matt – that’s a whole truckload of conjecture. Yeah, I know… It’s how I roll sometimes.
I’ve talked with writers and read countless blog posts on the subject of originality. What is truly original? Have all the stories been told and now we’re all just creating derivative works? Can any of us be truly original these days?
I believe originality doesn’t necessarily come from creating a sparkling new body of work completely devoid of links to anything else in our world. I mean, even “original” works from Antiquity draw upon the creator’s life, experiences and environment. Look at Melville. His adventures were drawn straight from his real-world travels. He injected his own creativity into the mix, but the spirit of the work came from his life.
No, this isn’t a “write what you know” lecture… I loathe that tagline. It’s too simple. It’s too open to misinterpretation. It’s too safe.
“Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.” – Franz Kafka
Over a decade ago, I had an idea for a story about the Catholic Apocalypse and the Garden of Eden. Do I know shit about the Catholic faith? No, not really. I didn’t even own a Bible (and neither did my family) until I began work on Eden. If I was to listen to conventional wisdom, I should never have written Eden, from a content perspective. From a story perspective, parts of my life are certainly in there. Of course, my life has picked up quite a bit of flotsam along the way, so how much is original and what parts are derivative?
I didn’t really think about that while I wrote, and I urge you to do the same.
Follow Mr. Kafka’s advice and start with what is right. Peer into your own heart and examine the story you want to tell. Block out external influences. Ignore the desire to create something that “will sell.” Listen to a ton of music that reminds you of your idea. Keep a notebook on your nightstand to jot down late night and early morning epiphanies.
If your idea really comes from within yourself, it will emerge original. A story may have external ties, but the soul of the story must come from you. If your idea is to tell the story of a space farmer who wants to fight in a war, save the galaxy, use the force and redeem his father – don’t. That story isn’t yours. Can you make it less like the source material? Sure, but it’s still not your story. It’s not original.
Can you claim to live in a vacuum and create original stories? Sure, that’s valid. If you had never heard of a wisecracking ex-airforce pilot superagent who finds shit under the oceans, you could make a case that your version of Dirk Pitt is your own (Mr. Cussler might disagree). However, if you truly genesis’d this character in a vacuum, he would be original. And if you were a decent writer, that originality would even show through on the pages and save you from a lawsuit.
To summarize: write in seclusion, write from your heart. If you can master that trick, your work will be original to you. Trust me. The only failure you will experience is when you abandon your own instinct and write for a formula or for somebody else’s agenda. The moment you veer from the originality in your own heart, you fail yourself.