As authors, advice givers, and readers, your Author Enablers give a lot of thought to the idea of originality. When we write our next book, we want it to be a fresh offering for the readers of the world. We want our unique voice(s) and perspective to come through, and we want entertain the reader with a story or message that is different than any they have read before.
On the other hand, as the biblical philosopher said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Sometimes it seems that every subject has been written about, every story idea explored. In one of his essays, our friend Roy Blount Jr. once said many stories can be summed up in three simple phrases: papa – boo boo – bye bye; boo boo – papa – bye bye; and papa – bye bye – boo boo. (Any pronoun can be substituted for “papa.”)
One afternoon Roy was babysitting for his two year old grandson, who began to fiddle with the fireplace screen. Worried that he was going to pinch his finger in the screen, Roy tried to take the fireplace screen away from his grandson, managing in the process to pinch the little boy’s finger. His grandson looked at the blister and then looked at his grandfather with a face of betrayal, and said, “Papa – boo boo.” The next day Roy was flying back home and his daughter and grandson were seeing him off at the airport. As he headed down the ramp, the little boy remembered what had happened, turned to his mother and said, “Papa – boo boo – bye bye.” At that point, said Roy, his grandson became a storyteller.
Many great tragedies are built on that threefold plot: King Lear: papa – boo boo – bye bye; Oedipus Rex: bye bye – papa? – boo boo, boo boo, boo boo, boo boo, etc.
There are other, less entertaining formulas that say something along the lines of “all plots can be reduced to three, or four, or seven” types. Does this mean writers should give up and stop trying to be original? Is there nothing new to say, no new stories to tell? Absolutely not. Each generation, each reader cries out for fresh material and new perspectives. The formulas are not the problem, and can even help us to understand that we are part of a grand tradition. The world and every person in it are so mysterious and profound, life so precious, that new stories, ideas, and guides are not only possible to invent—they are essential.
The hard part, of course, is writing something original. Simply copying the styles and techniques that have come before doesn’t do anything to advance the cause of knowledge and art, or even entertainment. Originality is difficult to define, but we all recognize imitative and uninspired work when we read it. The writer’s job is to be inventive and imaginative. It’s hard work, requiring diligence and discipline, but someone’s got to do it.
Here’s something we can do to as readers to support originality: read an author you haven't read before. Go to your library or local bookstore and find a fresh voice, and if you like their work, spread the word. Spend a little money on a new book. Bookstores and vast majority of writers aren’t getting rich, and we all need each other to keep this wonderful process of creation going.