Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Where is Originality Found?

Originality is a concept I wrestle with. On one hand, artistic attempts that rely too much on originality can end up being inaccessible or self-conscious. For those reasons, I usually don't try to be original when I'm writing myself. On the other hand, art involves invention. And, as a reader, discovering original writing that affects me is a bliss. With this latter thought in mind, I wanted to say a few things about where I think originality should be found.

As writers, we all know how important it is to read. Studying great writers, experiencing their stories, copying their language word for word is essential, at least in my opinion, if we want to develop the skills we need to write beautifully. But, what can sometimes happen is that, when we try to write our own stories, we find that we have adopted someone else's voice, or, worse yet, someone else's view of the world. We can sometimes fall into the trap of believing we are writing well simply because we sound like other writers. I myself often admit to wanting nothing more than to be a copycat of Tolstoy.

Having only developed the tools does not make one a great writer, however. I think to be truly satisfied with our own creations, we writers have to somehow make the connection between the words on the page and our own experiences, our own hearts. To be original, we have to turn to real life.

Because words are symbols, after all. "Chair" isn't really a chair. It's a collection of letters that are placed together to represent a chair. A real chair is that thing sitting off to my left, with its carved wood and its padded seat and its avocado green paint. Likewise, "love" isn't love, and "struggle" isn't struggle. Furthermore, my "struggle" isn't your struggle, and my "love" isn't your love.

When writing, I believe that we have to start with non-words. And, I think that's one reason why so many people have problems with cliches. (Really, I think there are far more cliches in writing than we acknowledge.) Cliches are the most obvious cases of stolen language. Vanda's hair was as golden as the sun. Whoever came up with that first made a beautiful comparison. But, chances are, everyone else who used that same line didn't make the same direct comparison. Rather, they stole language. In our perceptions, we have our own specific descriptions, our own comparisons, and our own way of relating to things before we limit those relationships with words. To be original, we have to access that source and then translate it into words. The words represent the thing rather than being the thing itself.*

The beauty of this--because make no mistake that this is HARD to do--is that as soon as we invent new language by translating our experience, we are suddenly able to distort our reader's perception of reality. Nowadays, don't we sometimes see golden hair that reminds us of the sun? Someone has made that connection for us. Someone has forever shaped the way we experience our world. That's a remarkable thing, and that, to me, is a compelling reason to try and be original.

How do you all feel about originality? Is it something that's important to you? And, what about you science fiction and fantasy writers? What is your source for originality? Do you think you must also look to life first, or does it come from a different place?

*There are probably artistic movements where the word itself is the art. Fine.


  1. My brain is so tired, Davin. This is some heavy, heavy thinking this morning. Wow! So excuse my disjointed thoughts.

    I try to be original in my language, but I know my work is filled with cliches. I compare the lake in my story to a mirror as it reflects its surroundings, I describe a black man's skin as dark as licorice, but then I also open up my book with a very original image and idea, and it works, apparently.

    I like your point to stay away from cliches, but honestly, I'm just trying to tell a good story, and I can't possibly describe EVERY description in a new, unique way. There's also story we have to think about, and coming up with unique ideas and characters and situations. It's a lot of pressure!

    So I'll be brave here and disagree with you that cliches are not always signs that we're being unoriginal in our writing - if that's what you're implying.

    Sometimes a cliched term is what fits the best, and readers simply do not care. They SHOULD be so focused on the story that it doesn't matter that one description out of five isn't that original.

    Let me go back to simple writing to illustrate my point. Take Scott's recent post, for example:

    Writing less Efficiently

    He makes a point in that post that we don't need to worry about using different words for things every single time we go to write it down on paper - sometimes the thesaurus is not a great thing because, well, it's not being original, and it's making the writing a lot more cluttered and complex than it needs to be.

    This is why I LOVE the point you've made about referring to our own life experiences when it comes to writing - instead of relying on what we've learned through other writing. This does help us make those distinctions in a fresh way.

    But like you say, the older we get, the more things we've read, and the more our "perception of reality" is changed by all of that other work we've absorbed. That can make it harder and harder to come up with unique things, while at the same time, we've lived longer and had more experiences. Maybe it just continues at an even rate, who knows. You're making me think way too hard this morning. *narrows eyes*

    When all is said done, I try to focus on story first and foremost, then I go back and try to spot really bad cliches and unoriginal writing that's drying up that story.

    But more than likely, I'll keep the lake compared to a mirror because it works for some of the symbols I've set up, and it helps the scene in my opinion. Now, though, I'm all worked up about it and I might just go change it. Hmmm... thinking of all my experiences with lakes now!

  2. I love this post, Davin! It is something I like to play with in my writing from time to time. I'll make an analogy or comparison that I *hope* is fairly unique. One example is a line, "....she let the sharp, nutty scent of his Mennen deodorant sooth her troubled spirit."

    Is Mennen deodorant really nutty smelling? Not particularly, but I think it adds to the book. If I said the clean scent or the minty scent or whatever, I don't think I would like the line as much. And the play of having a sharp scent sooth her is also less cliche (again, I am hoping...)

    And you are right, it is HARD to do. It is something I still aspire to and work at..but I agree that it will make our writing better if we at least try.

  3. As a sometimes fantasy writer, I feel my output is meager because I "struggle" to come up with plots that are quirky. You'd think it would be easy to conjure the fantastic, but it's not. There are very well-worn paths in the genre, but if it's too out there it doesn't ring true--screwy, huh? Life details come first, ironically.

    For example: I wrote this comical story about a sweet siren who wanted to snag a man without the use of her singing voice. She's stuck on an island, so she used an internet dating service. My first-draft readers commented--"How did she have access to the internet?" Okay, these readers were along wholehearted for the mystical siren part, but had issues with an internet provider? I fixed this problem by adding Neptune set her up with it. The readers loved it--this even more heightened fantasy. Curious . . .

    *sigh* Originality doesn't come cheap, I'm afraid.

  4. Okay, we're on the same wave length again. I did a post, inspired by Jessica Faust's blog, about ideas. The one thing, and there were many, that stood out in her post was "I think you need to focus on making the execution of your idea more brilliant than anyone else could ever make their execution". I think her words tie in nicely with your post. I guess that means you and Jessica are on the same wavelength as well. : )

    So, if there are only a finite number of ideas, does originality truly exist?

    Yes. Originality exists with the writer's execution of his/her idea in a brilliant fashion. As Jessica also pointed out, "If your idea is brilliant, but you aren't able to execute it as brilliantly, it's not brilliant".

    Ah, words to live by. We must take our ideas, our creativity, and make them original in whatever way we can.

    As for fantasy originality, well, it's the world the writer creates, the characters, the situations and solutions, as well as the execution that create originality.

    Great post. I agree with Lady Glamis - too much heavy thinking this early in the day.


  5. Great post, Davin. I recently stopped worrying (too much) about cliches when I realized that it really doesn't matter. What I mean is that the same stories are being told over and over, albeit with different details. We've talked about this before, how there are very few distinct stories or new ideas. So how do we transcend this issue and create something worthwhile? Well, I could delve into a deep discussion of tricks one can do to avoid cliches, write elegantly, and craft something somewhat new. The real answer though, is that if we write well and put our voice into the story, it will become something original. That's a copout answer perhaps, but I think it rings true. After all, we are all unique individuals and see things in different ways. By presenting this difference to the world, we can put our own unique spin on an old story. Long winded answer, but hopefully this answers the question well enough.

  6. I dance between writing the kind of book I want to WRITE and the kind of book I want to READ. The latter almost always wins out.

    Because I write for children, I often try to write the book that I wish I could have read as a child....or the book I'd love to read aloud to a class. When I try to write the book I want to read, I stay away from the stuff that annoys me as a reader.....I hate stuff that seems like it's trying to hard (not that I can even describe it, but I know it when I read it) or stuff that confuses me overmuch. I try to stay away from cliches because they take me out of the story when I read them.

    Originality? Hmmmm. Still thinking.


  7. Normally I hate being dogmatic, but I feel very strongly about this as I can't stand plagiarism of any form:

    Mediocre writers steal; great writers invent. Don't ever word-for-word copy any writer in any way, not even while learning. I think this is a mistake too many artists make, not just word artists, and this has caused the production of lots of mediocre derivative art. A copy will most likely never be as good as the original. Write from the inside outward; don't write from the outside inward.

    Being influenced by writing isn't necessarily the same as copying off that writing. People probably can't help being influenced by what they come into contact with, people probably can't help what they absorb. But I see a big difference between intentionally copying and subconsciously absorbing.

    I wish I'd written Good Morning, Midnight, but I'm not Jean Rhys. I'm me. And my writing has nothing to do with hers. We're two different unique people. Just about everyone I've ever known has thought and called me very peculiar; several have questioned whether I came from this planet.

    I bring all this peculiarity to my writing, so I know that it's most likely original in content. Peculiar writers and/or writers with specific peculiar personality qualities should use this in their works for originality. I think writers focus too much on language originality and often forget content originality, and the combination of the two, which combining probably yields even more originality possibilities.

    I'll repost something I said at RR:

    "Still, I think that most things you could do on the page today have probably been done before, so practically nothing you could write today would be very new technically. You are the only thing that probably hasn't been done before, your unique self, your unique you has probably never existed before you came into existence and probably won't exist after you no longer exist. You all, taken as individuals, are most likely it as far as relatively unique stuff is concerned.

    So, if you want to write something fresh and unique, you should probably write about yourself, write about your life, about the world from your eyes, about how you see things. Always intentionally put at least a little of you in your work and your work will likely always have a certain freshness, a certain newness, not counting if you don't grow and change over time as both a writer and as a person so therefore keep writing the exact same "you" over and over again."

  8. Michelle, Perhaps I should have chosen a different example. I chose to talk about language cliches just because that has come up as a prominent (and challengeable no-no). But, I was really trying to talk about everything: character, story, setting, etc. You're right, a linguistic cliche is probably the least of our worries. I just think it's good to create our stories from some place other than previous stories, unless that literary dialog between writers is what you are seeking.

    Tess, Yes, I think trying is the key here! As Michelle says, the more we read, the more we pick up passively and the harder it is to see the world without the interference of those other voices. It's nutty! Thanks a lot for including a great example!

    Rebecca, another great example, thank you! And, thanks for your thoughts as a fantasy writer. I would have guessed that life plays a role in fantasy writing, but I really didn't know. I do believe you that it's hard, though. I haven't been able to do it yet.

    Scott, thanks for your thoughtful comments! I'm a scientific researcher, and one thing we are often told when it comes to scientific publishing is that work is publishable when it either does something new or does something better than what's been done before. I think you're saying the same thing. Really, improving on something is another form of inventing something, or at least reinventing it.

    Eric, hopefully you won't disagree, but I think we're saying the same thing. The same story, told by different people will indeed be different if each writer dares to write from their own point of view rather than trying to copy someone else's.

    Shelley, thanks for jumping in. I think you and I teeter on the same tightrope. Don't you dare grab my umbrella! I also try to write what I want to read, but sometimes I also feel like there are certain things that I just need to get off my chest. I think that's okay...even if perhaps no one wants to read it.

    F.P., a lot of great thoughts in your comment. Thanks! For me, copying Virginia Woolf or Faulkner or whoever has helped me to see the writing better. Maybe it is bringing me closer to stealing the language, but I view it as a stepping stone, and I do hope that I can eventually move away from it. I like what you said about putting a bit of yourself into everything you write and the need for us to continually change to continue to make something new. That's interesting. I don't do that all the time. Sometimes I feel like I need to invent characters and stories that are not me. At the same time, I think it's inescapable to not put yourself into your work. Or at least very hard work. And, I agree with you that a copy of something will never be as good as the original. But, sometimes, for me, it's enough. I'd love to have another Anna Karenina-like book on my shelf that I could enjoy. At the same time, try as I might, I seriously doubt I will ever be able to copy Tolstoy. I'm different from him. And, even if I thought I was successful, that would only be based on my reading of him. Someone else might focus on his other strengths or weaknesses, elements that I don't even see, and that other person might think I failed completely. I think I'd be okay with that.

  9. This is such an interesting discussion!

    I've struggled with this as a Fantasy writer as well, because every idea (as we all know) has been done to death. No one can write about swords, dragons, elves, dwarves, orcs, halflings, princesses, monsters, magic, vampires, humans... you get my point. Everything's been done, so it's all about the execution.

    I agree that easy cliches are sometimes cause for an eye-roll when I'm reading, but I wonder about things like allusion or calling upon cultural memory to create certain emotions in the reader.

    Homer used to use the same phrase over and over throughout his works as an anchor point for reciting the story ("rosy-fingered dawn")--can we not use some cliche well placed as an achor for our readers? To make them think of a certain time and place where that phrase or language was used? Or maybe to make them feel the same way they felt when they first heard that description?

    I'm still not sure on that one. I know as a reader, it can go both ways. "His eyes were cold as ice" makes me roll my eyes, whereas "his eyes were cold as popsicles" might make me stop and stumble because... what?

    Where do you guys think the line is between creating a stubmling block or using a hackneyed phrase?

  10. Davin, I thought of that later after I read through other comments. Like I said, my brain was tired!

    But yes, I do see your point about being unique in everything writing related - if we truly capture ourselves in the writing, it will shine unique, I think, even if it's an idea that has been used before. The same types of stories go around and around, but how we tell them is all that matters, where the "unique" starts to make a huge difference between mediocre and great.

    This is getting me into a possible post topic for tomorrow. Thanks!

  11. One thing about fantasy and science fiction is that it only works if it is plausible, so that means giving it a grounding in our reality, in what we think might be possible.
    I get ideas, which I hope are original, through dreams and an awake-state I think is like the dream-state--where I'm not quite in the real world myself. *eerie music*
    Of course, one of the problems with being original and forming original language is that so much has been done before. Even so, each of us is unique if we just follow our voice. (I'm being very positive today)

  12. I do think originality is key as long as the voice is equally engaging. I'm going to try and look at my WIP through the lens of originality a little more carefully now. Thanx!

  13. I think that originality comes from seeing what others saw and seeing it differently. If 50 people look at a block of wood and see a block of wood, there is no uniqueness. Should 1 person look at it and see the hand of a woman in the grain, they have had an original experience. That one person who saw something different can do something original.

    Too much originality is off putting, though. For if that one person only shows people what they have never seen before, they will not understand any of it, won't know how to react to it. Instead, the original must exist in the context of the familiar so that there might be a frame of reference.

  14. "In our perceptions, we have our own specific descriptions, our own comparisons, and our own way of relating to things before we limit those relationships with words. To be original, we have to access that source and then translate it into words. The words represent the thing rather than being the thing itself"

    This is the passage I'll be chewing on. It's so much easier to take something that someone else has processed than to look at our own impressions and experiences of things, and try to dig through our language to describe them.

    Just like it's so much easier to copy a pencil drawing of a portrait than it is to draw a portrait of someone sitting in front of you.

    As for originality, I have to say I don't really strive for it, just because I don't want to distract readers by being too clever. Not to say being original has to be too clever, I'm just not sure I can always tell I've been original without being clever.

    Oh, another thought. White on White has already been done. The next person who does black on black: not so cool anymore.

  15. Rebecca, some really excellent points. I personally think allusion is interesting. I almost mentioned devices like that, but I was worried it would make the post twice as long. Because, I do think that is the other side of the coin. Our works can be viewed as part of the bigger literary scene, as a dialog between writers, and in that situation, borrowing language to reference other writers can be beautiful. As for where the line is drawn, that's a tough one!

    Tricia, I always appreciate positivity. What you say about writing from different states is fascinating. I sort of do a similar thing. I tend to write early drafts late at night when I'm more emotionally open, and then I revise in the mornings when my head is more logical. Okay, maybe that's not quite the same thing.

    T. Anne, Good luck with your writing!

    Dominique, well said. I think the truly original also has a place, but it may take far more time for such a thing to be accepted, perhaps longer than a lifetime.

    Yat-Yee, and don't you find that you end up with different art if you copy a painting versus drawing from life? I had a teacher who claimed she could tell if an artist drew from a live model or from references. That struck me as strange for a long time, but now I believe I can do the same thing. Whenever I write something autobiographical, readers pick it up in an instant, even if the character is an old man, or a woman, someone other than who I am physically.

  16. Yes, I definitely end up with drawings that look different. When I copy from a drawing, it will take much less effort and in some ways, look better: the proportions are right, the lines and spaces work out just fine.

    But these are the ones I end up just throwing away.

    The other type is a lot harder, and the first few will look bad, because the line placement won't be quite right or something. But if I keep at it, I eventually end up with something that will look decent. A person may look at the copy and still say that it looks better, but I will like the second one better. It's more meaningful, perhaps? Or something that I've worked hard at will necessarily be harder to throw.

    I see this is veering off topic.

  17. It's simple to be original, and no great feat. Most everything everyone writes has not been written before. (See Dawkins' THE BLIND WATCHMAKER regarding monkeys typing.) It's just that most of what we write is original but deadly dull and not art. Let's change this posting from "Where is Originality Found" to "Where is Art Found?" I think I found some at Von's last night.


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