Originality

You’ve probably heard of Thomas Edison.  You know, inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, motion picture and numerous other things for which he gets the credit.  People tend to hold up Edison as a model of dedicated genius.  What a great man, the single-minded, hardworking visionary who persevered until he achieved his goal.  Nothing beats hard work, he would say.  Yes indeed, someone to emulate, a shining example to us all. 

But in fact he really was a model of blind stubbornness.  It’s well documented that he tried hundreds of different combinations of gasses and filaments before finding success with the light bulb.  How inspiring, right?  Not really.  See, a lot of the things he tried had already been tried – and rejected – by others before him.  He would have known that had he studied their works.  But he refused to do so, seeing that as a waste of time, time that should be spent in the lab working.  But it was working pointlessly, and how much time did he waste replicating the failures of others? 

That we see his approach as a cause for pride is a distinctly American perspective, the same one that allows Libertarians to brandish their copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, celebrating the individual who owes nothing to anybody. What nonsense.  Nobody works in a vacuum.  Every innovation the modern age knows owes itself to previous innovations by others.  Nikola Tesla built on Edison’s work and was instrumental in the development of alternating current; too bad Edison missed the point and persecuted Tesla mercilessly because AC was more efficient than Edison’s own direct current.  Had Edison been willing to work together with Tesla, how much more innovation might they have brought to the world?  The fact is, we are all in it together.  Sorry, Randians, but that’s not a bad thing.  People working together are a source of strength. 

That’s why I spend time with other writers, seeking their feedback.  I do know writers who are pretty solitary, who rarely show their work to anyone, and certainly not before it’s “ready.”  We believe in the solitary, cloistered writer, pulling ideas whole out of his fertile mind.  But that’s not realistic.  We write for audiences, which means we have to step outside our own heads.  True, getting too many opinions can be overwhelming to the writing process, especially early on, but I gain more from the thoughts of others than I lose.  And I’m confident enough now that I have the ability to decide which advice to apply, and which to reject. 

And the most common bit of advice I get is to read.  Read as much as I can.  Every writer should be a reader.  But there’s the challenge.  The time I take to read is time I don’t spend writing.  It’s frustrating, but it’s worth it, ultimately.  Reading different writers shows me different approaches, ideas to try, strategies to consider, pitfalls to avoid.  This is what I tell my students, though they aren’t writing fiction.  I have them read a great deal of material.  And I tell them something that’s revolutionary for a classroom setting: it’s not all necessarily good.  Just because it’s in a book doesn’t make it an example of successful writing.  There may well be things the writer does that the students can learn to avoid.

Then there’s the reality that one student may like a particular piece, and another may hate it.  One isn’t “right” over the other.  Rather, they are seeing that different writers are effective for different readers.  By reading many different writers, they see many approaches they can try as they go through the process of finding their own voices.

I must do the same, and read many things.  That’s a relief, because the prospect of immersing myself entirely in Young Adult Science Fiction is a bit discouraging.  There’s a lot there that I don’t much care for.  Maybe that’s bad.  Surely if I want to write it I should love it.  But maybe my goal is different, and really what I want to do is write something better than the stuff I don’t like.  Try to improve on it.

I still have to read it to do that.  Doing so will also give me a good sense of what’s already been done, so that I avoid doing something unintentionally derivative.  Or worse, being accused of plagiarism simply because I wasn’t well-enough read to have found something that’s a lot like what I’m doing.

Actually, I’ve already encountered books with very similar elements to what I’m writing.  Twice, at least.  Initially I found that pretty discouraging, and wondered if there was any point of continuing.  But I was reminded of what I tell my students: few of them will ever create something truly original.  That’s just reality.  If it’s possible to do, it’s probably been done.  So the objective is to do something that may have already been done, but to do it in a new, better way than it’s been done before.  As one person told me, if my book is similar to something already out there, the people who liked that one will be interested in reading mine precisely because it is similar.  As long as it’s creative and engaging, I’m fine.

So, again, the key is to read.  If I encounter another writer doing something that reflects on what I’m doing, no one says I should throw my hands up in despair.  And they certainly don’t suggest I stop reading.  In the end it’s all different ways of broadening my horizons.  We all can learn from each other, even from the people with whom we disagree.

And I guess that means I can still benefit from reading YA books that I don’t like.  Even with a book I hate, perhaps I’ll find something that turns on a light in my own writing.  Let’s just hope it’s not a bulb that was already tried and rejected before I even got started.

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