Friday, February 19, 2010

How to be Original

"All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply 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

One of the problems I run into a lot when teaching story structure is the question of originality. People want to know how they will ever be original if they follow the time-honored principles of structure.

When people say these things, I know that they are far more interested in the glory and praise of creativity rather than the roll-up-your-sleeves work of it. They are imagining themselves on the red carpet, before the fawning fans and critics. And all before bothering to learn their craft. The aspiration to be good takes a back seat to being praised as a genius and living a Warhol-like existence. And this is of course your reward for doing something new and different. Or so many think.

I have written stories that people told me were "original." I can assure you that was not my goal at all. I just wanted to do good work, following the lead of those who came before me. If Chaplin or Hitchcock or Wilder--or Jim Henson or Bruce Lee or Chuck Jones or John Ford or any number of masters--says to do it, then that's what I will do.

My goal is always to be as good as I can be. I want to communicate clearly with my audience, engage them and touch them in some way. I have no problem using tools that have worked since time immemorial. In all of my reading I have found that the masters were all trying to do the same thing--to do the best they could. Being good is hard enough without trying to be unprecedented.

You've probably heard lots of talk about how much Avatar is like Dances with Wolves. Yes, it has similarities. But there is not one story anywhere that cannot be traced, in part, to an earlier source.

The infant Moses was set adrift so that his life would be spared and he was adopted and raised by strangers and become a hero. Same as Superman. Zorro and Batman are the same--both are rich men who fight crime in costumes. No matter what you try to do, someone has always done a version of it. Trust me.

There really is nothing new under the sun. Things may look different to the untrained eye, but humanity only has so many emotions and so many concerns. We need food, shelter, and love. We all must live under some form of government. We must all fight our internal demons.

There are no new problems, only the same old problems dressed differently. Take the story of John Henry. Here is an American myth about a man who races against a steam-powered hammer to dig a tunnel through a mountain.

This story comes from the fear people had--in the late 1800s--that they would be replaced by machines.

Human beings have had a strange relationship with machines ever since we started to use them. We build them to make our lives easier, but then we worry that they will replace us. The Terminator taps into the very same fear. It's just dressed up in new clothes.

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Here's the key to being original--be good and be true to yourself. Originality is often tied to the idea of style. Will Eisner said that style is what happens as a result of how one solves problems. Style is not something you have to force or invent--it comes out of you because you yourself are unique.

It's amazing what happens when you rid yourself of the burden of being original. You can breathe easier and get down the business of doing good work.

If you do this and you do work that matters to you, and if you say the things that matter to you sometimes you will hit on a new way to combine old ideas. But only in a way that serves your point--only as a result of how you solve problems. Originality is not the goal--it is the product of doing great work.

There is only one you. Originality rises from that. Now that you understand all you need to about that. Worry about being good, and let originality take care of itself.


KLo said...

I loved this post! I teach Freshman English in a small high school in New Hampshire, and it's taken me most of this school year to convince my students that there are five basic stories in the world--everything else is just a combination of these five elements.

It's funny, I went through a time (as a writer) where I wanted to be famous and known and wanted by the masses. You know what happened? Writer's block. BAD. When I'm not concentrating on where my writing is going or how successful it's going to be, I actually: a) Produce writing and b)Produce quality writing.

Thanks for giving me stuff to think about : )

jer said...

Thank you for your great blog.
I'm working on my own comic
and find your posts helpful
and encouraging

Jamie Baker said...

Great post Brian.

Robert187 said...

Great post. I really like what Eisner said about style coming out of solving problems.

LJCohen said...

"There is only one you. Originality rises from that." Needs to be tattooed on my forehead. :) Since I hate needles, I'll simply have to remember.

Thank you!

Darrell said...

Read your book. Feeling your blog. Thanks sharing your thoughts. It's helping me to articulate my own personal beliefs, and grow in the direction I feel I should grow. Thanks again man.

Brian McD said...

Thanks for the nice comments, guys. Glad you dug the post.

jean said...

Hi Brian,
I'm finding that I can apply elements of your blog and books not only to my writing, but to everyday life, to looking beyond people's actions to the motives behind them. And thus see truths revealed. I hope I am not sounding obsequious here, but you are a wise and inspirational teacher. I can't remember where I found the link to your blog, but it was like finding a gold nugget in a murky creek.

Brian McD said...


Thank you again for taking the time to write such embarrassingly nice things about my work.

I believe that being a good storyteller is mostly about being an astute observer of human behavior. So I am happy to know that my work had something to do with helping you get pointed in that direction.

-- Brian

Michael Ruyle said...

Fantastic stuff! It makes it easier knowing that I can let go of that demon instead of having to conquer it!