Friday, January 18, 2013

Originality and the Fount of Inspiration

Last time, we talked about the source of creativity, now let's look at what I mean by 'originality'

Muse at Mt. Helicon
When I'm judging the quality of something I have read (or even something I have written), I find I have to contend with the idea of 'originality'--what is it that makes something original, or unoriginal? Is originality even a desirable trait for an author to have? Is true originality even possible?

Certainly, we might construct an extreme argument and say that, since all human thought comes from what we learn, from notions that have inspired us, that therefore, every idea has some source and hence cannot be considered 'truly original'. If we defined 'original' as 'something that springs fully-formed from nothing and is not related to anything that came before' then no, there could be no original thought. But it is silly to define originality as some impossible severing of man from influence or history, when in fact those are indispensable parts of the crucible in which original ideas are formed.


Our world has always been full of innovation and change. The automobile, the aeroplane, and nuclear power are each ideas which required a great deal of original thought to come to fruition. Certainly, we have had self-piloted carts that ran on plant combustion since prehistory--its just that the combustion was happening inside of a horse--but that doesn't mean that the switch from herbivorous animal combustion in a stomach to fossilized algal combustion in a steel engine wasn't an innovation.

'Sure,' you say 'but those are technologies and inventions, not art or writing.' Nevertheless, the same principle is in effect. When Jimi Hendrix showed up and started making sounds no one had heard before, when Petrarch began to write poetry in Italian instead of Latin, when Michael Moorcock decided that the basis for his fantastical magic in the Elric series should be Quantum Physics, those were fresh concepts that had not been explored before.

Da Vinci's Original Illustration
So where do these original thoughts come from? They do not spring from any single place, but are the result of combining various sources of inspiration. One definition of genius is 'the ability to take two very different and apparently unrelated ideas and form from them a single coherent thought'.

My favorite example comes from Da Vinci, who, in dissecting a heart and observing its shape, realized that if blood flowed through the chamber in an eddy (like what he had witnessed in his sketches of rivers), then the heart could move blood in a continuous motion through the body instead of pumping it in fits and starts. He looked at the nature of rivers and the nature of the human body and concluded that both were the same, developing an idea which would not be rediscovered until high-resolution medical scans in the late 20th Century.

So when we're talking about 'originality', we're never just talking about one idea, but about a confluence of ideas, and about how ideas can come together to form a unique whole. When you look at the sound of Led Zeppelin, there is not one single idea that differentiates it, but many ideas in concert: Bonham was playing danceable funk rhythms on the drums, Page was combining blues and folk guitar in multi-layered tracks, Plant was using a blues wail to sing about fairy stories, and John Paul Jones was providing classical keyboard work, having given up a position as church choirmaster to join the group. It was not just one innovation but several unusual elements combined and made whole.

by Pamela Coleman Smith
But of the many bands that followed in Zeppelin's footsteps--though they often resembled one another--rarely sounded like Led Zeppelin, itself. To take another example (close to Plant's heart), we can look at the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Zeppelin, he combined a number of inspirations to create his great works: Norse and Welsh myth, Catholic theology, conservative Tory politics, reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and English fairy stories. However, look at the scads of other authors who have followed his lead and you'll find that, while none of them are actually doing what Tolkien did, most of them are very similar to one another. Why is this?

Well, Tolkien took all of those different ideas and distilled them, simplified them, modernized them, and combined them into a unit. He made them less strange and more accessible to his readers, because he reinterpreted those ideas for his time, for a modern audience. Those who took inspiration from him continued that pattern: they reinterpreted his ideas and simplified them for their audience--except that now they were streamlining something that had already been streamlined, simplifying what was already accessible, and you can only water down the wine so much before it loses the better part of its flavor. The problem wasn't that they took inspiration from Tolkien, it was that they didn't add other ideas into the mix. Sure, most of them are also copying from Conan the Barbarian and the structure of 'the Monomyth', but those ideas aren't that far afield from Tolkien in the first place.

This problem becomes self-compounding, because now you have a whole community of people aping Tolkien, and they are all reading each others' works, creating a closed circle, where no new inspirations ever come in, and all the authors (and readers) begin to take for granted that this is just what fantasy is--and all it has the potential to ever be. But more than that, despite drawing heavily on Tolkien and going around in circles, they still don't write like Tolkien did, and there's a simple reason for this: if you want to sound like Tolkien, don't read what he wrote, read what he read--read what inspired him, because that's the only way you're going to understand where he's coming from.

Satan meets Sin and Death by Doré

One of the things you are taught to do in Literary criticism is to seek out the influences of authors you want to study. If you want to read Paradise Lost, then start out by reading The Aeneid and The Bible--otherwise, you're going to miss half of what Milton is doing. If you want to understand something, you have to go to its source--and that was how I learned that, while Tolkien definitely had his own vision of what he was doing, he's really not a particularly imaginative or remarkable fantasy author. I went back to what inspired him, I looked at other authors who took those same inspirations and did different things with them, and ended up finding Tolkien rather flat and condescending in comparison.

So if you want to be original, if you want to avoid cliche, then you have to explore, you have to look far and wide for your inspiration, you have to take in very different, apparently unrelated ideas and find a way to combine them. Don't just recreate what someone else did, don't just stay within a certain genre--you have to build up a wide-spanning pool of references and ideas, because you never know where an interesting twist might come from.

For instance, right now I'm working on a Victorian sci fi novel (as you may or may not be aware), which means that I'm mostly reading Victorian horror and adventure stories to help me maintain the right 'voice', but I also decided to read a work of literary criticism called Orientalism by Edward Said precisely because it points out a great deal of the conceptual problems of colonial authors like Burton, Conrad, Kipling, and Haggard--and despite my book's setting, one of the larger themes is inspired by a little-known Russian Speculative Fiction novel from the latter half of the 20th Century.

Hero of His Own Life Richard Francis Burton
So, remember that being a good writer means being a good reader, because the ideas you take in become the raw building blocks for the stories you'll end up writing. A lot of artists try to do something original by taking a basic idea and then putting a 'twist' on it, but that's simply not enough. All that does is create books that are deeply cliche but easy to differentiate in a blurb: Harry Potter is a 'child in the other world fantasy, but with a school', Hunger Games is 'The Running Man (or Battle Royale), but with an American girl', Game of Thrones is a 'long-winded, gritty fantasy, but with a soap opera plot'. None of those 'twists' lift their stories above cliche, because nothing about them changes the nature of the story being told. It's all new wallpaper, same old house.

Each of those changes represents the least difference necessary to ensure that those books aren't exactly like all the others in the genre--just mostly like them. They're approaching writing with the same spirit of a company trying to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits: what's the smallest change we can make to an existing product that will make it technically different from what we're ripping off?

Certainly, it's effective way to market products--be they movies, goods, or books--but it doesn't do much for the quality of writing. As Quentin Crisp observed in his introduction to the Gormenghast series: being original is not about looking left and right at your neighbor's garden paths, seeing that one is perpendicular and the other parallel, then making your own diagonal--it's about developing a coherent internal philosophy which governs what you do.


When I read original books--stories that cannot be summed up as 'previously successful thing with one small change'--I find that this is what those authors did. I can look through their works and discover references and homages to dozens or even a hundred other authors, stories, genres, traditions, and ideas. Of course, it is possible to overdo this, as well, and the rule of writing is the same as the rule of art: an innumerable layer of detail will not cover up a bad structure. There must always be a strong, central foundation underneath--there must be a story worth telling, and worth hearing. But every story consists of a myriad of subtle turns, details, and elements, and it is here that our wide experience and breadth of influence comes into play.

It is in the way a character turns their head, the words they use, the way their fears manifest, how they look at the world, the pacing, the pauses, the way beauty and disgust are shown, in the choices they make and the way they love. These are where our many inspirations must show through--not in a litany of details or out-of-place digressions where the author goes on and on about their opinions and favorite subjects--but in those moments which are integral to the plot, to character psychology, and to the presentation of a world. Inspirational details should never be the cover for the story, but the driving force behind it.

How will you know when you've gotten there? Well, you'll start to think of it in terms of the characters, and in the moments that reveal them to the audience. You'll realize that a certain idea or type is alive in a character, and that you can structure events in order to demonstrate that to your audience. It's refining your sense of what to show, versus what not to show--which is the heart of every artistic decision.

It's a gradual, never-ending process, and that's always daunting, but hopefully now you have an idea of the actual process by which an author develops their own individual voice. Bring together the things you love, the things you are passionate about. Tell the stories you wish people would tell. Seek out things that you fear, things that make you uncomfortable, things that bore you, and find a way to make them interesting. Fall in love with the world again, and you'll find your inspiration.

6 comments:

  1. It is often too hard to find these ideas that we all share being given with this much clarity.

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    1. Well, I'm certainly glad you think so. As usual, writing is, for me, the byproduct of the process of me trying to figure things out for myself, so if what I write somehow avoids being obscure and insular, then I must be doing something right.

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  2. Have you watched the HBO show Treme?
    Its a pretty good study of the creative process.

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    1. No, I've never heard of it, but looking at the Wikipedia page, it looks interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out, thanks.

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  3. You're spot on with the admitted misapprehension that the word original is equated to new.

    I think one of the significant obstacles in any writing, is not to surrender to the thought of someone did this already, therefore I cannot touch it, because otherwise no new idea would ever be pursued.

    The ability to successfully capture existing art and re-establish it in a way that is, to a degree, new.

    Another interesting question is, how important is originality? Sometimes a great yarn presents no novel thought, but its execution makes it fun and worth reading. But then again, it is that execution that might be the underlying originality.

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    1. Well, I'd say originality is only one part of what can make a book good. I mean, if a book adheres closely to established styles, but is well-written, with interesting characters, a finely-structured plot, a vivid voice, an interesting exploration of ideas, that could certainly be a great book, even if the themes, plot, and character types it depicts are clearly all drawn from some common tradition.

      However, it is usually my experience that if an author is a good writer, capable of expressing ideas and developing interesting characters, then they will usually have original aspects to their voice, because the activities which help one develop a good writing style also tend to inspire unusual ideas and approaches.

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