What is Original?

“‘The Lazarus Heart’ was a vivid nightmare that I wrote down and then fashioned into a song. A learned friend of mine informs me that it is the archetypical dream of the fisher king…can’t I do anything original?”
— Sting, liner notes to Nothing Like the Sun

Sting is a creative hero of mine. He’s managed to build a career where he gets to play with so many fascinating things and combine them in exciting new ways (and I get the feeling he’s fascinated by quite a lot). I remember reading the liner notes to Nothing Like the Sun back in 1987 and being struck by his comment about failing to be original. It probably influenced me in ways I don’t fully understand, pushing me to ask if I’m being original in the things I create or if I’m falling short. Now that I’ve gone through Kaizen-Muse training, I see very clearly how fixating on that sort of lofty goal may sound good on paper, but really gets in your way—and probably isn’t realistic anyway.

I was reminded of this idea in the course of reading a copyright-related article on Cory Doctorow’s Boing-Boing site (copyright, and Doctorow’s take on it, are fascinating to me, especially in this time of great change), where I found a link to Nina Paley’s 2009 blog post, “The Cult of Originality.” Paley argues pretty strongly that while there is plenty of creativity, there is no real originality, and we should give up our artificial fixation on originality and enjoy the variations in perspective instead. Near the beginning of her post, she presents Michelangelo’s David, which she juxtaposes with ancient Egyptian art and even drawings from the Lasceaux caves. Her point? Even Michelangelo drew on what he already knew, what had already been done. None of us lives in a vacuum; all of us are influenced by the things we encounter in our lives, no matter how minuscule or trivial. (I’ve greatly simplified her actual post, of course, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.)

Striving for originality sets up expectations that we just can’t ever hope to meet. It’s impossible for us to be completely original. All we can do is offer our perspective on the world, in whatever manner we choose. My poem may remind you of E. E. Cummings. Your painting may remind me of Monet. There are only so many plots (remember those categories we learned in elementary school? Man vs. Man, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Himself, etc, though I’m sure they’ve been updated now to include the girls!), and the joy comes in finding the variations, putting the unexpected twist on what’s been done before.

It’s worth noting, too, that our ideas of originality have changed dramatically over the last several centuries. Chaucer freely stole heavily from The Decameron when he was writing The Canterbury Tales, in no small part because it was believed at the time that anyone daring to do original work was trying to steal God’s ultimate creative thunder. Shakespeare, as is well known, lifted plots and characters without a second thought, and turned them into plays that remain an important part of our culture today. Most people don’t even realize (or tend to forget) that there were other versions that came before.

Even now, good writers (and presumably other artists) know that when they run across a problem in their writing, the best way to come up with an answer is to look at others’ work and see how they solved it, as attested to by a panel I went to at the 2008 AWP  Conference. It was called “Stealing from the Greats,” and although it didn’t advocate outright plagiarism, it basically made the point that if you want to learn how to do something, you could do worse than observe a master at work, and art is no different.

(I should note here that I do have great disdain for the current trend in remaking movies, especially when they’re classics like Charade, or even, as I just learned, Dirty Dancing. There’s being influenced, being derivative in that unavoidable way that we all are, and being a copycat because you can’t do anything else or because it’s easy, and that’s lame. It’s also probably a topic for another post!)

I really think that if any of us tried to do something completely original, it would take a lifetime. And even then, we might not manage it. It reminds me of Tantalus, stuck under water up to his chin, but never quite able to manage a drink or a bite of the fruit overhead. In the case of originality, the water and fruit aren’t really there. They’re illusions, and our insistence on pursuing them (and belief that others have managed to grasp them) just makes us miserable.

When it comes to creativity, how original you are doesn’t really matter. Other people may believe there’s some Great Scale of Originality against which you must measure up, but ask yourself how much fun they’re having by being so rigid before you decide to follow their path. The only thing that’s important is how much of ourselves we put into what we do, how well we express the things we see and feel, and how true those expressions are to us. Everything else is in the eye of the beholder, and is probably none of our business anyway.

As for Sting, I remember another quote where he mentioned that pain was essential to the creative process, and that if you didn’t have any, you should go get some. I bought into that one, too, for a while (what can I say, I was an impressionable teenager!) and was relieved a few years ago when I saw an interview where he laughed and said that he believed stupid stuff like that when he was young, but now he knows better. It’s just a guess, but I’m gonna bet that if he ever has occasion to look over what he wrote about “The Lazarus Heart,” he shakes his head and says the same thing.

Go out and be your gloriously derivative self, and see what wonders you can create from what’s gone before. You’ll have more fun—and might even manage to surprise yourself in the process!

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