Recently I visited a school to talk to a group about creative writing, and in particular writing short stories, and we spent a lot of time talking about How To Be Original.
This is one of the number-one thing writers starting out worry about.
It changes the more you write, because you start to realise that most of the time when people talk about Being Original, they mean having an Original Story.
Well. There are no original stories. There you go, so don’t worry about it. All stories have certain things in common – certain building blocks and elements that are configured in different ways depending on who’s telling the story – and this is actually why they work.
We are natural storytellers. We turn our lives into stories. We have a rotten day at school or work and we go home and tell the story of it. We have a fight with a friend and we tell someone else the story of it. We know how stories work, instinctively. We watch TV and we guess what’s going to happen next. We find bad storytelling unsatisfying, even if we can’t or don’t quite articulate why.
We are natural storytellers, naturally creative people, and yet we worship the idea of, well, The Idea. The Great Idea. “Where do you get your ideas from?” is the most frequently-asked question writers hear.
The Idea is the tiniest sliver of a piece of work, and when we view the process of creation as a two-step thing – Step One, Get Idea; Step Two, Write It – we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves.
You don’t need to have The Big Idea before you start writing. You can just start and see where it goes. That’s allowed – and the funny thing is, ‘ideas’ (plural – because writing something is always about loads and loads of little ideas coming together and colliding) will come more easily once you’ve actually started.
And when you start writing you realise that it is about all those little mini-ideas, scraps of things that don’t seem important but collectively add up to something. That is where the originality lives. It’s in the words you choose that someone else mightn’t. The detail you see that someone else might ignore. The weird combination of things you’ve included in your story because these are your passions and you know that it’s always easier to write about what you care about.
Your Big Idea won’t be original. But these mini-ideas – they will. Because this is where you come in. Your voice. Your heart. You.