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.