“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to 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, Mere Christianity

There is a commandment written upon the heart of every artist and it states, “Thou shalt be original.” The punishment for violating this is not exile or stoning but something far worse: the disrespect of your peers. But as concerned as we are about originality, I see a lot of us looking for it in the wrong places.

The first thing to realize is that we artists draw from a well of ideas that was excavated by those who go before it. It’s a necessary process, because if by some miracle we created a piece that was mostly original, it would be too weird for our audiences to comprehend. They’d have no reference point to understand it. Other disciplines do this with a small fraction of the angst that we bring upon ourselves. Imagine if Ford released a new automobile and it was criticized the same way we artists castigate each other. “Oh, your car has four wheels? And they’re circles? How original! I bet you used a steering wheel as well. Would it kill automakers to use a joystick or voice controls once in a while, something to shake up the genre? And don’t get me started on the windshield wipers.”

But for artists, that feels somehow wrong. There are paths that have been trod before, some which work, some which do not. For some reason, we feel guilty about learning from those who have created great works before us and building on what they’ve already done. When automakers launch an innovative project, people celebrate what’s new and different, how this will change the industry and make new things possible. And I think we can learn something from that: originality has nothing to do with what you’ve copied; all art is inspired by what came before. Instead, originality is what you’re adding to the pool of art that others who come after you will be able to draw from.

So take courage, draw deeply from the pool of art, and take everything you need for your project. We’re not running out of ideas any time soon. But don’t take indiscriminately. As a writer, one of the Pixar rules of storytelling has stuck with me: “Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, and fifth. Get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.” So when I’m creating, I’m constantly questioning whether what I’m doing is the best or is it simply the most obvious way of doing things. Here’s some questions that might help you in considering your ideas:

  • Am I doing this because it fits my goals for the project, or am I doing it simply because that’s how most people would do it?
  • How can I put a unique twist on this idea to make it my own?
  • Does what I’m doing reflect how things really are, or just how artists usually depict them?
  • What are my other options, and after considering them, do I like any of them or am I satisfied with my original idea?
  • How can I mix this with another idea to create a combination you don’t normally see?
  • What is God saying to me about what I’m doing?

At the end of the day, it’s like Lewis said, you don’t get originality by seeking it. But I’ve noticed that when people complain about a lack of originality, it’s usually in art that was poorly made to begin with. If Detroit made a car that could sprout legs and walk when it needs to go over rough terrain, no one would complain that it also has a trunk in the back like so many other cars. In the same way, if your art is true to your vision and made with care, people are going to be too distracted by all the amazing parts to care that you’re building on what came before you. And that’s as it should be. You’ve taken from the pool of creativity, but you’ve also added back even more for the next generation of artists.

Cameron Miller, writer
Photo by Free Nomad on Unsplash

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