It’s commonly believed among the literati that anyone who has reached the age of 18 has had enough experience in life to write the great American novel.
A provocative claim that has the power to change the way you see your potential in writing, doesn’t it? What makes this possible and what short-circuits the writing process for so many? What keeps that originality from finding its way to your brain and spilling out all over your word processor?
Your experience in living is unlike any other person who has been, is or will be to come – absolutely, entirely specific to you. There is a story there needing some unlocking though.
What do we contend with to get it out though? Well to name a couple – a heavily saturated writer’s marketplace along with our tendency to trivialize our experiences (a result of the herd mentality) are probably the most formidable beasts that will oppose you, and they can pop up at any time to sabotage your creative flow.
We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
Let me help bring perspective to this challenge that will hopefully minimize the monolithic perception that originality is too hard a mountain to climb, and one can’t realistically hope to scale the heights that have been raised by all the creative geniuses of the past. It is possible to bring to birth something the world needs to experience. Something unique.
The term “saturation” is a word that is thrown around quite a bit these days when the topic of original music or book publishing comes up. And rightly so. It stands to reason that as the decades wear on in any field of art or craft, achieving eye-popping originality becomes more of a challenge. The fact is, for anyone attempting to put something fresh and new out there in song or print in what is now a global marketplace, that challenge can be daunting.
To set ourselves on the right footing we have to begin “outside the box,” outside the mindset that is directed by what has already been done and what is popularly accepted at any moment in the culture. Economic analyst Philippa Malmgren explains in her book, Signals, how she managed to retain all of her net worth during the economic bubble burst of 2007 by not allowing the prevailing mindset about the economy to influence her instincts. She ignored popular wisdom. She got out well before the decline when others were still making oodles of money, which they subsequently lost. I’m not suggesting that we ignore what’s gone before, but you must allow the wings of your unique creative soul to function, to trust your own intuition. Artists in cultures that are hyper-commercial where marketers control public perception at a very high degree will likely have a few go rounds with the aforementioned beasts.
One last example from the world of music before we get into the mind of T.S. Eliot. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s young rockers were coalescing in places like Washington DC and Seattle, Washington bravely disregarding the popular commercial sounds of their day producing music that was, well, original….very original. They were marked by raw emotional lyrics with equally raw chord and melody structures that were far from mainstream popular music. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Green Day, and Jawbreaker slowly revolutionized the music scene and ushered in a wave of previously unheard of musical genres like emo, grunge, emocore, punk, screamo, and indie rock. They thumbed their noses at commercial success believing that their music was original and were content to perform their art in venues such as small cafes and house shows. Eventually a number of them became very successful each having created a unique niche in the music world.
Let’s look at the quote above from a character in T.S. Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party. Sir Henry HC, the mysterious psychiatrist, puts forward the idea that as human beings we never stay the same. We are in a constant state of change because of our exposure to the continual stream of life pouring over us every day–nothing stays the same and neither do we.
While his suggestion that we are meeting strangers in those we have known seems a bit overstated, it is true on a basic level, but the truth of it may not be apparent unless there are long gaps between meeting those we’ve known. Think of that brother or sister you grew up with that went away to school or joined the army. Their return after a year or more away reveals this truth. They are the same, but their story has changed–they’ve had new experiences, newly formed perceptions and can tell a story uniquely theirs.
This is a phenomenal observation and existentially true, but it easily escapes us in a culture that has managed to standardize everything from the clothes we wear and our school curricula to the way we are exposed to the world through the media. We supposedly cherish the independent innovative thinkers in our society, but we train our young people to fall in line and follow the leader. But despite the efforts of corporate marketers to create a vast class of consumers who will run with the herd to open their wallets for the latest fad, the human soul remains entirely unique at its core.
Your mind and imagination are as unique as your fingerprints, retina, and DNA makeup. Look, no one else has lived through the circumstances you have, witnessed the same events, had the same upbringing, and thought about it all in the mind that you have. And there’s no use in saying that you haven’t had enough experience or that you’ll wait till you do some world traveling before you write that short story or novel.
Your challenge is to begin to BELIEVE in the fact of your unique one-of-a-kind individuality.
Everything you do in life is based on belief – Everything. You get up in the morning because you believe you can and that there are things you can do. You walk out to you car because you believe that when you put your keys in the ignition, the car will start. You stop at Starbucks for coffee, but you never think that they will be out of java when you get there. You believe. Even those things you do apprehensively are done because some measure of belief is present. By believing that the power of originality lies within you, you can unlock something in writing that the world has never seen.
Having believed in your utter individuality you then must put some shoe leather to that belief. Stop dismissing your impulse to write as something “unoriginal”, incidental, unrealistic, far-fetched, or foolish. Start to tap your sub-conscious and all that is stored there in the way of experience.
By beginning to write.
Write about everything and anything as only you can. Anything that comes to the surface. Don’t worry about editing at this point, just free write and write until you’ve said something you didn’t even know you had in you.
And a word of caution… Please don’t show your writings to just anyone at this point. Entrust those previews to another writer preferably and someone you can trust to be sympathetic to the writing process.