Originality

Even in literature or art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

C.S. Lewis

Often, in the writing world, or in the art world, we hear about originality.  Books and songs and movies are judged by their originality: by the idea that no one has done something like this before.  We love this idea of being original, both in ourselves and in the work we value most highly.

The problem is twofold.  First, the reality is that so very little of what we value is actually original.  In writing, sometimes avant-garde techniques such as adding a recipe to a poem or musical notation to a book seem terribly original.  And, this has been done before, really for hundreds of years before (read Tristram Shandy).  Or, musically we think that adding a new twist to an old song is making it original, when people have been copying and adapting similar melodies and harmonies for hundreds of years.

The second problem with originality is that it doesn’t necessarily translate to merit.  For example, think of your favorite movie.  Do you like it because it was original.  Or, do you like it because it portrayed truth in a beautiful and moving way?  Take the Tristram  Shandy example.  My guess is few readers of this blog have read the book, because beyond its originality, it really has little going for it.

And so we have this quote.  The reality of the quote is this: you are original.  Though you have felt the same things and seen the same things that thousands of others have felt, your specific way of seeing and feeling is original.  This is not feel-good hogwash; this is necessary for creation.  Otherwise, new art would have ceased long, long ago.  The important part is to describe the world, through writing or painting or directing or sculpting or gardening, the specific way that you see it: not the way you’ve been told to see it by your favorite movie or book or person.  Sure, others have discovered a similar truth, but they would not or do not communicate it in the same manner.

And this is how to be original.  Above all, tell the truth as you see it.

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