Originality, Inspiration, and the Writer

It has been said that there are no original stories anymore, that everything borrows from something.  For the most part, this is a true statement.  If you look at the state of modern television and movies especially, you see the same tropes popping up over and over again.  Alien invasions, reality shows, crime procedural shows, and so on seem to typify the market these days.  I’m sure a lot of people would agree with the sentiment that seeing these shows over and over again gets tiring.

First off, I feel that I should say that I have no problem with repeated ideas.  It happens, and it is bound to happen time and time again.  But there is something to say about seeing the same alien invasion story and the same demonic possession story done so many different times.  Humans need variety.  While there is nothing wrong with these story lines, it gets repetitive after a certain amount of time.

While we may roll our eyes and groan at the mention of another one of these stories, there is something to be said for the struggle of creativity.  As many writers (myself included) can attest, crafting something truly unique or special is no easy undertaking.  And even if the mind latches on to a truly different idea, that’s no guarantee of success.  Ideas alone are not enough.  Writers have to spend so much time fine tuning their work to make sure that it flows well and it looks good.

And where do our ideas come from in the first place?  We writers don’t just sit around waiting for an idea to pop into our heads from somewhere in the ether.  We seek it out.  We look for inspiration in the mundane and the fantastic.  We look for ideas in places old and new.  And oftentimes, it’s difficult.

Inspiration is a fickle thing.  It comes and goes in spurts.  I’ve had days where I can sit down and write out ten pages of something on the spot.  Other days, I find it hard to even get down a single paragraph.  Some days I enter a sort of trance when I’m writing, completely losing myself in my work as my fingers flow effortlessly over the keyboard.  Other days, I just stare at that blinking “I” cursor on the screen, trying to will my brain into coming up with something, anything.

And often, inspiration comes when we’re not thinking about it.  It can come when we’re watching a television show.  It can come when we’re reading a book.  It can come when we’re at work, doing things that demand our attention.  It’s not hard science.  It’s the nature of artistry.

So when you think about it, our ideas generally come from things that have been done before, from story lines that have already existed for some time.  Even the attempt to create something unique often takes the form of doing something in the opposite manner of an already existing work.  A lot of indie movies seem to rely on that basic premise, with many independent romance flicks featuring a not so happy ending for the sole sake of being different.  But the idea for their difference came from something that was already there.  There had to be an established trope for there to be something different.

Humans may have only been around for a small portion of the Earth’s lifespan, but in that time we have told stories to people young and old.  These stories are passed down from generation to generation, and become an essential part of a culture.  These myths and legends help shape us, even if their impact is lessened through time.  Many of the movies or the games we make today feature stories informed by thoughts, beliefs, and fears older than their creators.  In a way, originality is overrated, because we have to find inspiration somewhere.  But there is still the creative spin, the twist on those things we’ve already seen.  A lot of the time, a story will get attention based solely on the fact that it’s a new and interesting twist on an old plot device or character archetype.

People who are good at the art of storytelling will twist and turn something familiar to make it their own.  They will borrow ideas from other works, but incorporate them in a way that seems new.  All great writers do this to some extent, some of them even borrowing from their own older works.  Take Stephen King for example.  He’s written so many different novels that he was bound to start treading on familiar territory at some point.

Originality isn’t some lofty, impossible idea that we hold above ourselves to keep reminding us that we’re never good enough.  Originality is an art, a tapestry spun by the mind.  It is an intangible concept, defined by a person’s perception of the word.  There is no objective test for originality.  There is no concrete measure of what is creative.  Creativity, is in many things, is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s all for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a great week everyone.

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