Saturday, April 3, 2010

The (un)importance of originality

Rhian made a joke this afternoon--a song parody, actually. And then wondered aloud if anybody had already made this particular parody.

Five seconds on Google told us what we already knew--that if you just made a clever pun, you are approximately the five hundered thousandth living American to think of it. If present-day technology has told us anything, it's that there really is nothing new under the sun. If you've come up with something good, you can bet it's been thought of before. If you can think of something disgusting, guaranteed, somebody has done it, and is probably doing it right now. It can lead one to think that we are not all that different from, say, our chickens, who, while they are sort of distinctive from one another, are basically just chickens--they do the same kind of thing all day long, they seek out their own kind, and the world around them is terrifying and incomprehensible.

That said, there's a good way to interpret this news. And that is that, if we are inherently, inalienably unoriginal, then, ipso facto, it doesn't matter if we're original or not. What does this mean for the writer? If you get inspired to write, say, a poem about rain, or a short story about infidelity, or an essay about your grandma, don't be deterred by the fact that ten million others before you have done the same thing.

Because the only originality that matters is the kind you have no control over--the imprint of your particular personality. We're not like the chickens after all--it may be a cliché to be human, but it isn't a cliché to be a particular human. Indeed, the mark of a great artist is the willingness to embrace the ways in which they are different--to identify and cultivate their own strangeness.

In other words, it's the singer, not the song. Which come to think of it isn't the most original thing in the world to say.


dylan hicks said...

At least y'all didn't book studio time, as I rashly did to record my 1994 composition "My Bologna." Every once in a while I come up with a pun that Google apparently hasn't documented, but of course that doesn't mean the pun is original; usually it means it's too obscure or otherwise clunky.

Goethe more than once said that he didn't see himself as an original or think the word had much meaning, which in itself is an unusual if not original thing for a pretty legit genius to believe during the peak of Romanticism and individualism and so on. His poem "On Originality II," about originality and genetics, ends (in trans.) like this:

If, then, no mortal chemist can
Divide the components from the whole,
What is there in the entire man
You could call original?

LemmusLemmus said...

"Five seconds on Google told us what we already knew--that if you just made a clever pun, you are approximately the five hundered thousandth living American to think of it."

Yawn! Others have blogged about this before you!

Anonymous said...

Ha! I bet I've blogged about it before.

Oh my, Dylan, were you ghostwriting for Weird Al Yankovic? Or maybe Weird Al was ghosting for Goethe.

Jason said...

I see a lot of rules for writing around the Internet. One of mine is that you should be aware that what you're sitting down to write has been done before and how it has been done, but once you're at your desk and your fingers hit the keys, you need to drop any self-consciousness and write as though the subject has never been touched by anyone else.

I figure that only with that kind of enthusiasm are you ever going to take a well-worn subject and make it worth a reader's time. However, I guess that's more of an approach than an actual rule.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the time I sat down to write an "app" for the iPod Touch—one that would reward attentive finger taps and tickles and twirls and rubs with an increasing cacophony of sounds from a recorded female voice. You'd "win" the game if you could make the voice go into orgasm mode. Then I discovered that, original or not, the idea was banned by Apple's policies on obscenity. Oh well. (I'm just kidding. I never had such an idea. But this post made me think that if I did, I wouldn't be alone!)