The gift of originality

The one thing I don’t want to do in these posts is to come across as some sort of smug writing guru, dispensing criticism and advice from on high. I hate that kind of thing. It’s why writing has gotten all tangled up in such issues as point of view, genre and “write what you know.”

If I happen to pontificate about writing, I’d like to think I’m approaching the topic as an avid reader — nothing more.

Furthermore, I don’t care all that much what your point of view might be, and you don’t need to claim a genre to be invited onto my reading stack.

What I want is to learn something. Tell me something I don’t know, or tell me something I do know in a way I haven’t heard before. I had a creative writing teacher in college who would give his students an “A” on any paper that contained an original thought. One original thought, no matter how clumsy the rest of the piece might have been. He didn’t give out many “A’s.”

Sadly, the creative arts — writing, music and art — have all too often fallen into the same trap as that of politics. You take a survey to find what people want you to say, then you say it.  That validates what they’re thinking, so they want you to say it again, and the whole cycle repeats itself. In the process, true creativity withers on the vine.

I think most of us are willing to be jolted out of our comfort zone, but we need help. There is a little voice in our head that whines “Play it safe. You don’t want to take a chance on that, because what if you don’t like it?”

When we scan a restaurant menu, we look for food that won’t surprise our taste buds. When we stand in front of a juke box, we’re hoping to find songs we’ve already heard. But maybe we taste the less familiar food on someone else’s plate, or we hit the wrong button and play a song new to us, and we discover that we like it.

Take a look around the Amazonian landscape. Browse a bit. In fiction, you’ll find literally thousands of books about lost love, detectives, vampires, zombies, serial killers and people with addictions. It might be nice to try something else.

But even if you gravitate toward the herd, you can still be original. Make your serial killer unlike anyone else’s. Craft a love story that’s unique. Make someone addicted to popcorn or cotton candy and use that as a metaphor. Put a new spin on the vampire legend.

How can you do that? Because you’re different. Let’s compare you and me. We probably grew up in different cities, certainly in different houses with different parents (as far as I know — I’m an only child). We went to different schools, learned from different teachers. We probably listen to different music and watch different TV shows and movies, although there may be some commonality. We’ve had different friends. Our background ethnicity isn’t quite the same. You’ve traveled to places I’ve never been, and I’ve traveled to places you’ve never been. We have different pets, like different foods, follow different religious paths (or no religious path). We may well disagree politically, or maybe not.

The point is, you have a lot that you can teach me, if only what it’s like to be you. All writers have a whole palate of colorful experiences and descriptions that we can work into our writing, yet so many of us settle for black and white.

If you’re a fiction writer, it’s your book. So find a place for that great story you’re always telling at parties, or the weird friend you had in high school. No one else had that experience, or knew that person in quite the same way. Use them.

Listen, really listen, to the next TV political ad you see. Chances are it will be wrung dry of passion, originality, and soul.

I will listen to you, the man or woman in the business suit says. I will serve in accordance with your values (leaving that intentionally vague, so it can apply to everyone), I won’t raise your taxes. Blah, blah, blah. Hardly anyone ever says: “I’m a unique person, and this is what I will bring to the table if you elect me.”

And that’s a shame.

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

One thought on “The gift of originality”

  1. I agree. All good thoughts. Can’t be who you’re not, no matter how much some SEO or marketing guru will tell you that’s what you need to do. I know that I have insights that no one else has because no one else is exactly like me.


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