One of my favorite quotes is one I cut from an article in Writers Digest many years ago. I pasted it to my floppy disk case, where I looked at it every day, and from there it was transferred to my CD case, and now it is pinned to the desk above my monitor.
It is a quote from John Jakes: “Originality does not consist of saying what has never been said before. It consists of saying what you have to say.”
When I first read this, I found it intensely reassuring. It was so freeing to realize that I did not have to find the most original way to describe a sunset, nor did I have to come up with the most original character ever written. All I had to do was to tell the story I wanted to tell.
We are all different. We all have different upbringings, different interests, and different ways of seeing the world. How often have you read a book you just loved, and yet when you enthusiastically recommended it to your sister or your best friend, they simply didn’t see what the point was? How often has a movie you couldn’t stop thinking about got terrible reviews? The way you see the world is unique to you, and your only obligation as a writer is to bring that vision to your work.
This was brought home to me one day several years ago, when I was attending a writing workshop. The instructor asked everyone to write a few paragraphs with this prompt: A woman in a red dress comes into a room.
We all obediently wrote the paragraphs, and out of the forty or so people in that workshop, not a single person wrote the same thing. The room was a bar, a dining room, a bedroom. The dress was in a ballgown, a mini-dress, a tattered rag, a nightgown. The reasons she came into the room were myriad; the conflict her arrival caused was not the same in any instance.
I’ve tried this exercise in some of the workshops that I teach, and I experience the same phenomena: no one writes the same thing. Even when I make it more specific—a woman in a red dress walks into a bar, for example—I get such disparate stories it surprises me every time.
My critique partner and I have always been interested in the same themes and characterizations. Sometimes, we even end up using the same names. But what she brings to the table is different than what I bring. No one reading us would ever imagine that we often start from the same jumping off place, because her way of looking at the world is not mine. And why else do we read except to experience the world through someone else’s eyes?
Sometimes, I find myself still struggling to describe that sunset in a brand new way. Then I look at that Jakes quote, and relax, and that is when the description comes—in the point-of-view and distinctive voice of the character I’ve envisioned that no one else can write, because he comes from the alchemy of my experience, because while others might have experienced some of the things I have, no one else has my particular mix. No one else can say what I have to say.
In the end, originality is simply … being yourself.
Megan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” Her books have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices program and IndiBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Find her at: http://www.MeganChance.com.