Craft,  Creativity

Why Originality Is A False Goal

Show me a writer who is concerned about being original and I’ll show you a new writer who doesn’t read very much. 

New writers often fall into two camps. Either they believe they are God’s gift to literature or they are trying to please everyone. The former deserve their own blog post (assuming, of course, they would actually read it) but the latter often worries about the wrong things. 

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes, (p. 174) “It is the ego’s demand the tour work be totally original — as if such a thing were possible. All work is influenced by other work. All people are influenced by other people. No man is an island and no piece of art is a continent unto itself.”

The truth is that none of us will ever be truly original. Every story has hints, allusions, patterns, and structures that are echoes of every story ever written. How would we even know what “the hero’s journey” as if it wasn’t repeated by generations of storytellers?

It’s also dangerous as an artist to strive to be trendy. What’s selling in 2019 will hardly be interesting by the time you get that next book written. Instead of fretting about this, spend your energy writing the best story you can. If it is a genre book, then do your best to maintain the conventions of the genre but with enough creativity that your story sticks out. 

Recently, a writer I know said he had discarded dozens of ideas (not manuscripts, just ideas) because they weren’t “best-selling” ideas. 

Julia Cameron also says this on page 174: “A competitive focus encourages snap judgments: thumbs up or thumbs down. Does this project deserve to live? (No, our ego will say if it is looking for the fail-safe, surefire project that is a winner at a glance and for good.) Many hits are sure things only in retrospect. Until we know better we call a great many creative swans ugly ducklings.”

New writers often worry about being original. In their minds, an “original” idea may make itself known in the conception stage. What they may not understand is the “originality” isn’t in the beginning at all, it’s in the process and the final result. No one, no matter how experienced they are, can predict a story.

Rather than worrying about being original, focus on being excellent instead. Study craft books. Go to conferences. Read the best books in your favorite genres. Write as regularly as you can and keep track of those ideas, even the seemingly weak ones. The point is not to be a best-selling author right off the bat, whose success is only as good as the next idea. The point is to grow in confidence so you don’t have to worry about anyone else around you. 

And don’t be afraid to put the work in those “mediocre”. You never know, they just might surprise you. 

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.