Warning: This post contains large doses of positivity.
What makes a piece of work original?
People like to say everything's been done before and when I was at school then uni I was always taught to steal, steal, steal or 'borrow' from popular influences depending on the teacher. This guy has a nice metaphor for it: '7 notes and 7 colours, yet an infinite number of melodies and pictures that can be made.'
Since writing this post for Penryn Press I've tried to find new ways to make my own writing original but find myself falling into old patterns of writing. My best pieces of work tend to follow patterns that have been set out since the Greeks, probably earlier, and I'm sure it's the same for many people. I love a good underdog story.
The more I look into the question of how to be original, the more I read about authenticity as a kind of replacement, like a band-aid for our originality deficit. How dull.
We can only judge originality on our own experiences. If it's something you've never seen before surely you'll believe it's original? At least, until someone comes along to tell you it's definitely not. And if no one currently living has ever seen it or heard of a particular thing, how can anyone ever know if it's been done before? If a tree fell in the woods and all that.
I'm getting sidetracked. On a more practical note, I am all for the idea that you can create something original of bits and pieces of old ideas, it's the most efficient way to come up with 'never been done before'. Imagine having to start from scratch? Nothing would ever move forward.
I'm pretty sure the internet was fairly original, even ground-breaking, when it came about. Was it an original idea? Well, the idea of communication via writing certainly wasn't (forget posters, writing goes back to cave paintings!), the 19th century brought us typewriters so typing wasn't new with the introduction of the internet, yet something about this ephemeral place where you can hold loads of information and pass it to people a million miles away was exciting, new and original.
And the mobile phone. Walkie-talkies could be considered a prototype of sorts, but no one would swap their android for a walkie-talkie. Everything's been done before? The mobile phone appears fairly original to me, but comments are welcome as this logic seems a bit too simple. I'm waiting to hear the glass shatter.
I have read a post where it's mentioned that original ideas can't come from an amalgamation of old ones using Netflix as the example, simply a subscription service applied to TV shows. I think he has a different definition of 'originality' to me, although that gap between old and new seems to be a common thread. The big thing can get on board with from this post is the sentiment that combining old ideas is a fantastic way to move forward.
Originality verses Authenticity
Stop. Make peace not war.
Originality relies on authenticity so instead of pitting them as two opposing forces, try combining them both. When you produce a piece of work that's new and exciting, something I think most creative types aim for, then originality gets so tightly intertwined with authenticity that it becomes one and the same.
Now enough of my rambling, after all when I search for a question I always feel slightly cheated if I don't get an answer, so here are some actual pieces of advice - whether the outcome is original or authentic is up to you.
How to be original:
1. Subvert peoples expectations. Maybe start writing about a grumpy old man then subvert peoples expectations to make him happy (not all that subversive but you get the idea). Then subvert again so that he gives away all his worldly possessions. Continue to subvert people's expectations until he has ears on his feet and the concepts of love and hate no longer have any meaning. Keep going and see where you end up, hopefully somewhere a little bit unconventional.
2. Combine the unexpected and see what you get. Cake and carrot? Sure. Chilli and chocolate? Why not. Pizza and a sugar topping? Erm...
3. Ask others for advice and input - a very flattering way to steal! Others don't always realise how good their ideas are and when you combine two brains it's always going to get better. And possibly end in a Wozniak and Jobs-style divorce. Oh well.
4. Focus exclusively on something that's been done countless times before. Examine it, scrutinise it, learn every other scrap of art or writing that's been produced from this one conventional topic, then you can write your own version. No two fingerprints are the same and no one else will write about a topic quite like you.
5. Create your masterpiece then ask yourself these questions. Is it new to you? Do you think other people will have seen it before? Does it matter? More importantly, are you proud of what you've achieved? As long as the last answer is yes, you're probably doing alright.
Oddly enough, I do still think you can be 'original', whatever that means, and it is possible to create something brand new out of the old (how a person can tell if a thing has never been done before, I have no idea!). But am I searching for originality? Nope. Authenticity? Maybe. More than anything I'm just looking for an exciting story or interesting work of art.
Still reading? If you'd like a breather from my peculiar rambling logic, take a look through my post on the top ten libraries around the world.