A number of months ago, we were discussing in a workshop class the ways of being an artist. My professor said she was still looking for someone who was different and not mimicking someone else, arguing that nothing since Ulysses has been truly original because can trace its experimental roots to Ulysses.
I disagree. I can honor Ulysses purely for being so incredibly different and holding a sense of timelessness. I’ll give Joyce that credit, but that’s about it.
I would argue there are more ways to be different than to simply…well, write experimentally and create a work that looks like nothing before it. Shakespeare wasn’t great because he created a new form for writing plays, he was great because of his command on the language and the ability to write so many genres and do them all well. And he was an amazing plot-stealer.
My professor made the argument that you don’t want to recreate the same painting over and over again…why not? If one painter makes a realistic painting of a cottage and a waterfall, and another painter comes along with a similar skill set and does a realistic painting of a cottage and a waterfall, does that mean his painting isn’t art? What about the person who connects to the second cottage more because it looked like her childhood gettaway? What about the person who sees the second one first, and even after discovering the original, thinks the second one is better?
Art is to create something with skill that can be appreciated. You can’t aim to please everyone; that just isn’t possible. You can’t aim to please a specific group, because chances are you were either disappoint them or alienate everyone else from enjoying it. You have to create—and write—for yourself. That’s the most important person you create for. As long as you have created something that you yourself find pleasing, and you know is a good representation of your work, who cares if it wasn’t different?
For an author to attempt to stand out and stand the test of time, to be remembered at the next original experimental genius. If that’s you’re goal, than you aren’t writing for yourself, or to be read. You are writing to be different. What good is a book you are only writing to be different?
Here’s what I say: don’t be different, be yourself. It goes back to the saying that you should write what you know. That’s exactly what you should write. No one’s brain works exactly like yours does, so by writing what you want to write, what you have the ability to write, that in itself will make it original. Maybe you won’t stand the test of time—I don’t really want to—but maybe you will. Maybe you won’t get honored as a literary genius that way, but maybe your work will make one person smile, or create a gaggle of teenage girls who read your books under the desk during math. I’d take that any day.