The Problem of Originality

I was poking around the site of novelist Jonathan Carroll, and discovered the following enlightening passage from a commencement speech given to the 2012 AIS graduating class of Vienna:

I’ll tell you one other thing I have learned over the years: No matter what your interests are, find your heroes. Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision. Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen. In the end, try to become the kind of hero you were once looking for.

– Jonathan Carroll, AIS Commencement Address 2012

A little while later, on an unrelated note, I was googling some of the writer Kelly Link’s short stories, and read the following essay, posted to Charlie Finlay’s LJ from Link’s essay on the OWW site. Have a read:

BEYOND COMPETENT AND ACCOMPLISHED: A CALL TO ACTION FOR WORKSHOPPERS

In the past few months, it seems to me that there is a great deal of competent work being posted to the Online Writing Workshop. This month there was a handful of stories that could have been Editor’s Choices, and all of them are probably good enough, with minor revisions, to sell to some of the second- or third-tier markets. Some of you will sell – or already have sold – your work to _Asimov’s_ or _F&SF_. This is one of the largest workshops that I’ve ever been a part of, and it works. I read the comments on stories, and, like any workshop, there is good advice and bad advice and just plain weird advice being given. Part of becoming a better writer is not only learning what to take away from good advice, but what to take away (or figure out) about bad advice or off-the-wall advice. The only kind of critique that I worry about, in the long run, is the tendency of a workshop to sand off all the interesting edges from a writer. Workshops frequently reward writers of competent prose who can tell stories that are smaller in scope and easy to understand. A group of writers will find it easier to agree about certain kinds of stories – the kind that ought to sell to magazines, because we’ve all read exactly that kind of story in magazines – than about more ambitious stories. The more ambitious or individual a story is, the argument goes, the fewer readers that story will find. So play it safe: tone down the interesting stuff.

The problem with this kind of advice is that there are a lot of writers out there who can pull off an accomplished and enjoyable story. (Like I said, I could have selected a whole handful of pretty good stories this month.) So even though some of you are writing stories that are good enough to be published, you’re competing for magazine space with writers who already have readers, and relationships with editors. Your competent stories may not actually be good enough to sell to the magazines that you would most like to be in. So what do you do? You can make a career (and a name for yourself) out of selling work to second- and third-tier magazines. But again, there are a lot of pretty good writers out there. Even at a zine like _Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, we have a backlog of two issues’ worth of short stories. We have more good work than we can publish. So what can you do?

What I would like to see workshop members doing, now, is beginning to submit more ambitious work. The only thing you have to offer an editor, and readers, is you. Your voice. Stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to want to write. Take risks. Some of you are in critique circles that have been going for quite some time. You know each other well enough to have built trust. And it takes trust to show a workshop the kind of ambitious work I’d like to see. Take chances. Write stories whose characters and the endings surprise even you. After you’ve written them, go back over them and make them even more surprising. And don’t think by “ambitious” I mean that the prose style has to be eccentric(although it certainly can be). And read widely – not just the new stuff, and each other’s work, but older work, too. I’ve been reading through the collection PLATINUM POHL, and there are fantastic and alarming and wonderful short stories in there. Are there some inside you?

–Kelly Link

I opened this blog post with those two passages, because they highlight the problem a lot of aspiring writers (including me) face in originality.

I’d argue that the skill required in writing original stories is more than the sum of its parts.

What I mean to say is that one cannot expect to combine beautifully speculative ideas with well developed characterization and poetic sentences to create an original story. These are necessary ingredients for any good story, and as Kelly points out in the essay, can result in technically competent stories.  But, what is the difference between a technically competent story and a story that shimmers among the cobwebs of your memory? The story that you read and reread a week or ten years later when you are seeking inspiration? The stories that you unconsciously mimic when developing your own voice?

For me, these are the stories that illuminate the world in a way that I’m not expected to seeing it, that surprise me at the different meanings revealed in each subsequent rereading, and who I can’t help but mimic in my own writing.

Reading the above two essays at this time have been particularly pertinent because I’m constantly trying to break out of this unconscious and repetitive mimicry of ideas that I’ve read in the fiction of my influences.  Occasionally, I can point to a short story or novel passage and say: that is definitely my voice. Despite this, I’ve come up against a wall because I feel that my ideas are original, but at times too literal.

The best stories, the rereadable ones, have many layers, and the full impact of the story isn’t realized in the first reading. I realize that may be a poor analogy, and too abstract perhaps for what is better termed as a “sense-of-wonder” imparted from  superlative storytelling. Some examples of the stories about which I’ve felt this way:

Scout’s Honour By: Terry Bisson

The House Beyond Your Sky By: Benjamin Rosenbaum

The Cartographer Wasps and The Anarchist Bees By: E. Lily Yu

There are cool ideas at the centre of these stories, and they are peopled by well rounded characters, but that is not all. There’s an indefinable spark surrounding the whole story that brings me back to reading these over the years. And that spark is what I believe is needed for writing truly original fiction. How one develops this spark is entirely another matter. There is no formula for imbuing fiction with this element of otherworldliness. If there is, I would say the majority of it would come from practising the craft on a regular basis, learning from your mistakes, and not being afraid to write something original.

(As a side note, for a very insightful look at how to learn from practising your craft, I highly recommend Theodora Goss’ blog post on Deliberate Practice.)

Let’s be clear: I am not devaluing or promoting anyone’s work based on the metric of originality. I’d guess that most of us come into our preferred genre of by the established authors of the field: whether they be Tolkien, Jordan, Eddings, Gaiman, Bujold or Rowling. In time, we may outgrow these influences and start to tell our own stories.  But more often than not, the new storytellers bring forward a large part of their influences in their own stories. To requote Jonathan Caroll from above:

Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision.

I feel that we ought to take more chances and be less afraid to tell our stories. The beauty of the world of literature lies in the diversity of viewpoints that exist today, not in the innumerable variations of stale themes.  Themes that were once fresh in the storyteller whose hands brought the shadows on the wall to life.

At this level of the writing process, commercial saleability or marketability shouldn’t enter into the equation. As authors all we can control is the quality of our work, pretty much everything else is out of our control. Readers may respond with a strong  like or dislike of the work and there are too many factors at play to ensure the commercial success of a story before it is released into the world. Writer Kameron Hurley wrote a response to Kelly’s original essay, and I will repost a part of it here:

The one thing you’ve got on everybody else in the writing world isn’t talent, and likely isn’t persistence, either. There’s always somebody more talented and more persistent than you.

What you’ve got is you. Nobody else has that.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kameron’s statement.  Most importantly, originality should never be forced–a tradition of literary one-upmanship will never produce good literature.  It may be a case I will have to write a hundred stories before I write something truly original, and that’s a chance I’m willing to take. In the long run, it’ll be worth the effort.

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