This post was written by Mez Blume.
Has this ever happened to you?
I finally completed the first draft of my magnum opus, the novel I’ve dreamed of writing for the past decade. I’ve sacrificed incalculable time, sleep and emotional energy to this thing for the past year and then some. I’ve dug into my past and poured my heart and soul into it.
Then I walk into the bookshop for a quick browse in the Middle Grade section and… low and behold, what do I see? A debut author has just won an award for her new novel featuring a story with uncanny similarities to mine!
And with that discouraging slap in the face, my story comes to a grinding halt, all because of this one, paralyzing fear:
What if what I’m writing isn’t original?
Most every writer grapples with this question at some point with each project. And it’s no wonder! What is it that every agent, every publisher is looking for in new talent? Originality! It’s that “new voice” that counts in the publishing world.
But start searching for Originality and pretty soon it can feel as though every idea has been uncovered, every angle explored. You feel like Truman in The Truman Show when, as a boy, his teacher dashes his hopes of becoming an explorer to smithereens by telling him, “I’m sorry. You’re too late. Everything’s already been discovered.” Cue the tragic backing track.
Yet we cling to hope… hope that there is still uncharted territory in the Land of Story, and we could be the ones who discover it! Otherwise we may as well pack up our pens, laptops and writing manuals and call it day.
Well I’m here to affirm that hope. Dare to muse with me for a moment…
Maybe… just maybe…this Originality thing is all a myth, an unattainable goal.
Maybe we’re going about it all wrong, trying to write our stories in a sanitary vacuum so as to preserve them from contamination by any element that might in any way resemble some other writer’s ideas.
Maybe this “contamination” is exactly what we need…
As it so happens, two of the greatest heroes of modern fiction poo-pooed this notion of all-important Originality (and ironically both are known for their own transcending originality!). These Giants of Story are none other than J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Listen to what each had to say about originality.
C.S. Lewis, author or the Chronicles of Narnia and a canon of other “one-of-kind” books, believed that aiming for Originality is the surest way of missing the mark.
“Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)
In other words, try to be original for originality’s sake, & your readers will see right through you. Write about what you believe in, & Originality–your own unique voice–will find its way into your writing without any conscious effort.
Let’s test his theory, shall we?
Think about the stories that have most touched and changed you. What was it that impacted you so? Was it wonderful and wacky creatures you’d never before dreamed of? Or was it perhaps something else… something old, maybe even as old as Time, like a love story, or a beautiful friendship, or a character’s heroic sacrifice?
In my case, it’s the latter. Sure, the old themes may be wrapped in fun new clothes, but it’s what’s at the heart of the Story that drives it, not the wrapping. And we’ve all read stories that labor the wrapping to death yet totally lack real, meaty content. Not ideal.
So take this lesson from Lewis to heart: Write about the thing you’re passionate about…the truth that drives you and makes your heart beat. Originality will come as a byproduct. Because let’s face it: every story, no matter how often it’s been told, is bound to carry the flavor of its storyteller. You, the storyteller, are unique; therefore your stories will be too!
J.R.R. Tolkien, the mastermind who set the bar for original fantasy by creating Middle Earth, believed Originality in Story was a myth.
Stories, he argued, evolve from “the long alchemic processes of time.” The process, Tolkien says, is a bit like a stewing cauldron of soup, or, as he phrased it, a “Cauldron of Story.”
“The Cauldron of Story has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Can you picture it? All the myths, histories, legends and fairy tales ever told simmering together in a great cauldron? There goes a bit of Arthurian legend, there a chunk of Greek mythology, and, oh! What’s that? I’m catching a whiff of Irish folktale.
The point is, nobody writes a story from scratch. We are all influenced. We all dip from the Cauldron of Story.
BUT – and this is a wonderful thought – that means you & I dip from the same pot all the great, successful, ingenious, original authors have dipped from — The Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling… you name them!
The important question then, is not “Am I being original enough?” but, “What will I draw out of the Cauldron?”
Take the good advice of our fore-bearers, Lewis & Tolkien. Read what you love. Dip into that age-old Cauldron of Story. Draw out the flavors that speak to you, that awaken passion, that you find most delicious and make your heart sing, and write about those!
And who knows? You may find that, without even meaning to, you’ve added a new pinch of flavor all your own to the ever simmering ‘Cauldron of Story’!
Do you think Originality in writing is a myth?
What do you think of Lewis’ & Tolkien’s take on Originality?