For whatever reason, I woke up this morning thinking about originality, in a couple of different veins. One, the idea of original thinking, which is absent from a section of my novel that my manuscript advisor marked. And then two, the idea – very pervasive in some quarters – that fiction must be wholly original, that the principle sin in writing is not just clichéd language, but clichéd situations/relationships/etc.
This latter idea makes me nuts, not because I’m advocating for a retread of everything I’ve ever read, but because I think that in more cases than not, it’s a charge falsely levied against a story or project. (I suppose at this juncture it is necessary to disclose that I’m referring specifically to workshop situations, as I am finally – after three years – coming up on the end of my MFA and have cause to look back.) There are only so many permutations of “relationship” to write about, for instance, be it mother/daughter, father/son, friends, lovers, etc. To pick on a story for that reason makes no sense: the way that people are connected to each other isn’t clichéd, but archetypal. And everyone blathers about the dearth of original plots, of which there are allegedly only two or three or twenty, depending on your source. But plot is less and less interesting to me, anyway.
It’s hard enough to return to the page again and again without beating oneself over the head with the originality stick. Again, this isn’t to indicate that I’m out to write stuff that’s derivative. It’s just that I don’t always know why I write what I write, and I just do my best to understand my intentions over time and refine them so that I can come to a place of closure on a story. I see a fixation with cliché and originality as a roadblock, just another excuse to berate oneself and keep work close to the chest instead of getting it out there. I watched the video below with Milton Glaser and there were a couple things I got stuck on – one, his idea that we need to be able to fail more, and two – the way he talked about seeing patterns in his work reminds me agreeably of the Nabokovian approach to memoir.
Obsession with cliché and originality are to me a way of intellectualizing work, which is really important I think, down the line. I’m all for turning oneself over to the ineffable activities of the unconscious mind early on, and if there’s anywhere to achieve some form of originality, it’s in the strange realm of one’s own creative impulses.
Which leads me to the first part of my impulse for writing this: my own lack of original thinking, called out in a particular area of my manuscript, and readily on display throughout this blog. Several credible excuses for the blog spring to mind, among them that part of my project is to become more thoughtful, necessitating a sometimes ugly/lame/unoriginal evolutionary process; that I am not by any means a great thinker anyway and am limited by my tools at hand; that I don’t always have the time to put in the thoughtful examination required to overcome that; and that it hardly matters anyway as the least original of my posts are buried beneath more current dreck, meaning that as long as I get better/more rigorous, the evidence of my fundamental unoriginality will require outright archeology on the part of anyone curious enough to seek it, a laughably unlikely scenario.
There’s no excuse for the manuscript, though. The problem there is too much reading and not enough processing. I’ll have to get on that.
Addendum: for several news cycles now, from the regional to the international, I’ve been stirred up but unsure of what responsibility I have to acknowledge or process current events on this blog. To do so seems presumptuous, to avoid doing so seems ignorant or myopic. I don’t want to be a political ranter online; that particular facet of myself is confined to the home. Maybe eventually I’ll find some way to participate. You know, in an original way.