As I focus more on my writing, I find myself more concerned with whether or not my work is original. Reading my writing, I see the glaring marks of other authors: the figurative language of Plath, the gorgeous but conversational musings of Anais Nin. I turn to my blog and I see most of my ideas derive from elsewhere. So the question remains: is a work of art any less masterful if it’s based on something else? What’s originality’s place in art?
Personally, I know I reprimand myself constantly for imitating other people’s work. “How cliched you are!” I’ll scold, “Can you do anything but recycle the same old trite ideas?!”
On one hand, the artist must be original to produce any interesting work; on the other, most of us hold the mistaken belief that originality requires effort when, in reality, originality results from simply being ourselves. As Brenda Ueland so beautifully articulated, “Everybody is original, if he tells the truth.” So if an article you write is inspired by a piece you read in The New Yorker that doesn’t mean you produced any less original work.
Poet and literary critic T.S. Eliot famously said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” I would have to agree. Though most of us will stumble over this puzzling paradox, the truth remains: only immature poets are ashamed of being unoriginal. Egotistical and deluded by idealized images of grandeur, the immature poet buys into the myth that he can create something totally novel. But such originality doesn’t exist. We can be original in the sense that no two human beings are exactly alike but no one can be original in the sense that what he produces is completely new or isolated from any sort of influence. True originality is absurd. No artist creates in a vacuum; all writing interacts with each other. Any artist who is pompous enough to claim that he’s “original” is a liar.
Examine any literary icon and you’ll see a rich literary history operating behind his work. Both Aldous Huxley and William Faulkner stole Shakespeare lines for the titles of books. Even Shakespeare himself shamelessly borrowed plots.
The fully developed artist appreciates the legacy he’s inherited and feels no humiliation at being caught copying someone else (and here I must make a distinction: I don’t mean copying in the sense of plagiarism, the unethical theft of someone else’s work; I mean copying in the sense of emulating, of texts talking to each other). The mature artist bothers himself with being authentic, with speaking only what is genuine and true, regardless of whether what he has to say is “original.”
For whatever reason, artists today revere originality as if it were a god on a pedestal. Even more sacrifice themselves on the altar of distinctiveness: many originality-worshippers produce weird, inventive crap for the sake of being obscure. The result? Bad, obnoxious art. Discordant scremo bands with no melody. Pretentious avant garde work.
But how, you might ask, could a groundbreaking piece of art be bad? Doesn’t it possess that magical trait…isn’t it “original”?
Art that is bizarre simply for the sake of being unconventional is often bad because it’s not authentic. Think about it: a story is good not because its plot represents something entirely new that we haven’t seen before; more often it’s good because it’s honest and, therefore, can connect with us on a human level. What makes a piece of writing good is its potential to move you.
So when you go to the easel or the chalk board don’t, as Auden so wisely advises, bother yourself with being original; originality is overrated-simply aim to express what is true.