[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]
Week Twelve – “…But You Didn’t”, or Stuff Originality
Ever had that feeling, when you get an idea that isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but a “hmm, yes, this could be something with some work” kind of idea, and then, after thinking about it for a few minutes, you realize that Shakespeare, Sondheim and Sedaris did it before you and better than you, and you sigh, abandon the fledgling project before even giving it a chance, and move on, glancing over your shoulder wistfully? It was a good idea, yes, but other people have already done that, so, clearly, you need to go forth and think of something else, something completely original, something never done before. No backward glances! Keep brainstorming!
…And then, weeks, months or years later, you find that someone has had an idea that was very similar to yours, and THEY went through with it, and, guess what, they did pretty well with it. Maybe you thought it would be funny to draw comics about a constantly depressed cat. Or that you’d like make tea blends inspired by characters of Sherlock. Or perhaps you wondered about starting a blog about your experiences as a freelance writer. You also thought of all those things way, WAY before all those other people did, but you thought – hey, a depressed cat isn’t THAT funny, you know five people, tops, who’d enjoy something as wacky as ‘fandom tea’ , and come on, the world really doesn’t need ANOTHER freelance writer’s blog. So you didn’t do any of those things, but now, looking at all those other people who did, you feel very much like Peter here.
Yup, you totally could’ve drawn a comic. In fact, even after abandoning the idea, you kept thinking of all the jokes you couldn’t put in it.
But you didn’t.
If you knew anyone would actually care to read, you would’ve started a blog a year ago.
But you didn’t.
You could’ve made even better tea!
BUT. YOU. DIDN’T.
So, with this merciless realisation, what do you do next?
Resent. Regret. Resolve!
I’m fairly certain that you will experience all of these three R’s, shortly after discovering your presumed-unoriginal idea successfully brought to life by someone else. But it’s your choice of which R to stick with that will determine your next course of action.
Resentment. All but the most saintly of us will have felt a stab of this feeling when we saw someone else succeed where we failed, or, worse, where we didn’t even dare. If you don’t mind me jumping in with moral judgments here, I think that experiencing that momentary feeling of ‘…GAH’ doesn’t make you a shitty person. But dwelling on it… oh yes, it does.
So even if you are feeling pissed off because another artist dared what you didn’t, and dared to do it well, too (I know, I know, that bitch/bastard/wretch… Here, have a lollipop.) – don’t let yourself get carried away. Because if you start hating on someone simply because they’re better and you’re bitter, that status quo is very unlikely to change.
Accept that you lost this round. And move on to- hang on, what was the next item on the list?
Go on, then, beat yourself up. Tell yourself off for being cowardly, lazy, and, while at it, smack yourself for being bitter and resentful just a short while ago. Eat a whole pizza by yourself while binge-watching an old sitcom. Refuse to touch your pen, or brush, or chisel, or guitar, forever and ever and ever. Accept the fact that you’re Not Worthy. You’re crap. You suck. Why are you doing this creative thing, anyway? You heard the local burger joint was hiring. Practice saying ‘do you want fries with that?’ in front of the mirror until you sound suitably robotic, and your glassy smile is devoid of any humanity.
Do all that, and more. For twenty-four hours. And not a minute more. Because that, in my experience, is the longest time you can spend renouncing your art and ideas and burying yourself in self-pity without lasting damage. If you can get this part of the routine out of the way faster, even better. But if it’s been a full day, and you’re still not feeling like going back, resist the urge to stay down in the Pits of Meh. Because it’s a downhill snowball from here, and your second day will turn into a week, and when you do pick your stuff up again, you’ll be rusty, and discouraged, and any ideas you could’ve still salvaged will be covered in a layer of dust and bad associations.
So, twenty-four hours, that’s all you get. After that, wash your face, put on a playlist of Eye of the Tiger, You Give Love a Bad Name and Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na), and get with the program. Because the next R stands for Resolve.
Resolve! Easier said than done, I know. But resolve! Resolve to commit to your latest idea. Resolve to finish a project you abandoned a while ago. Or, if you really have the guts, or want to pretend that you do (which, in the end, is the same thing)…
Resolve to revisit the one you thought wasn’t original enough. Even though, by now, it was done before you and better than you by Shakespeare, Sondheim, Sedaris, AND
That Bitch The Artist Who Was Braver Than You – and therefore, is even less original than before.
Well, I say stuff originality. Yes, let me say this again.
I’m not going to lie – original things exist. Every now and again, something startlingly groundbreaking does appear. But the longer we go on as a species that creates, the less room there is for true originality. You may feel like your idea has been done before. But if it makes you feel any better, so has just about every other idea. Just about every story has been told and retold. West Side Story is another Romeo and Juliet. Avatar is another Pocahontas. The Lion King is a medley of Macbeth and Hamlet set in the savanna to an Elton John soundtrack. Need I go on?
Ideas, stories, tropes, archetypes are many, but finite. Their combinations, however? There’s no end to them. If you want some perspective, think about music. Technically, all and any melodies you can think of are made up of seven notes. Need I go the heck on?*
So grab that idea you had, and take the plunge. Develop it. Think about it. Talk about it.
Play with it. Work with it. LIVE with it. You’ll find that the longer you spend with your creation, the more it will become your own, until it is no longer even slightly ‘ripped off from’ whatever piece of art was your idea’s springboard, but, at most, ‘inspired by.’ Well, hey, back before the term ‘fantasy’ caught on, they tended to label all sword and sorcery ‘Tolkien-inspired’. And if someone says your work is derivative, tell them that so is their face. (And you will even be technically correct.)
In closing, let me refer you to Voltaire, the master of wisdom, eloquence and snark. Here’s what he has to say on originality in art:
“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”
Now go and work on that abandoned idea of yours. Because it doesn’t matter that someone might’ve done it before you and/or better than you. What matters is, that YOU haven’t. Time to fix that.
*A certain self-styled amateur musician pointed out that there are, in fact, different musical scales on which the number of notes varies. I apologise for the oversimplification and offer the following by way of retraction: