When I was nine, I wrote a story about my friends and me fighting giant spiders while we vanquished a great evil. The reviews were spectacular: five stars from both my parents! My literary career was off to a great start.
But a single comment from one reader, a family friend, has stuck with me ever since…
I remember watching while he read, eagerly awaiting the verdict. Finally, he gave me a grudging nod. “It’s good. But it’s a bit unoriginal, isn’t it?!”
I flinched. My brain fizzed with sudden realisation. He was absolutely correct. I knew I’d ripped the names and setting from my favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, but it hadn’t occurred to me that this meant my story was bad.
I thought I’d created something, but I hadn’t. My pride in my story was replaced with an intense shame—a shame which I can still access today.
From then on, I scanned everything I did for the merest hint that it might be based on something else. Unfortunately, everything I create is based on my own experience, so this effectively destroyed my ability to receive praise. I always knew I didn’t really deserve it.
I’ve talked before about using the power of extreme sarcasm to overcome my fear of being unoriginal, but there are other aspects of my relationship with originality that are interesting to me.
Looking back over this incident in particular, the most important detail is that I was nine years old. It’s obvious that I’m holding my past self to an unreasonably high standard: it would have been astonishing if I had come up with a wholly original fictional world. So, there was no need to feel any shame then. And even if the shame was justified, I definitely shouldn’t still feel it now. Such ancient criticism says nothing about me or the state of my work today.
But I don’t want to get lost in a tangent—however important—about childhood wounds. I’m curious about why this criticism was so powerful in the first place. What’s so good about originality, anyway?
Creativity isn’t everything
Whenever I think about originality, my mind leaps immediately to creative works.
Of course, I know originality isn’t exclusive to artistic creation. Bringing new perspectives or expressing old ideas in novel ways are forms of originality. There’s also a particularly multipotentialite originality in combination; making something unique from our personal mix of skills, experience and knowledge.
But I’ve definitely absorbed the message that creation is the superior form of human activity. During the first COVID lockdown there was an explosion of pressure and counter-pressure around creative production: “Now you have time to write that novel!” battled “You don’t have to write a damn novel during a global pandemic”.
Most of us erred towards being kind to ourselves, and didn’t write any novels. But I can’t help noticing the hidden assumption in the idea that we can “let ourselves off the hook.” Part of me does believe that it’s somehow better to create something tangible than to merely look after myself.
I battle this assumption on a smaller scale in my everyday life. After spending a lovely day with friends, part of me judges the day, on some level, as a failure. I have nothing to show for it, except having had a lovely time. And what’s the point of that?!
Make memories (as well as things)
I’ve long believed that a good use of money is to create memories rather than to accumulate possessions.
Similarly, there’s no reason why time should be spent on making things rather than memories. If anything, perhaps I should prioritise memories.
On my deathbed, will I be happier if I have written an extra book, or if I’ve spent an extra accumulated year with my loved ones? Of course, choices aren’t so stark in reality—and we can do both!—but it’s striking how easily my priorities can get out of balance.
Recently, a friend was criticising themselves for not feeling drawn to make anything. They only wanted to spend time with their family and to explore nature.
I wish I’d said to them that making memories is still MAKING. Therefore, it’s a form of creativity.
And extending this idea just a little further helps to free me from my fear of unoriginality.
A totally original life
If making memories is a form of creativity, then we could think of life itself as a creative action.
This leads to a bold claim: the unique path we make as we pass through the universe is, from a large enough perspective, as much of an artistic expression as any individual piece of art we might make during that time. Our lives themselves are original expressions of what it is to be human. Nobody has lived the day I lived today, and nobody else will live the day I’m (hopefully) going to live tomorrow.
In case you’re unconvinced of your own unique importance, let me try another angle: I’ve heard it said that, assuming humans eventually colonise space, it’s mathematically probable that everybody alive on Earth right now will eventually have a PhD written about them. The idea is that future space historians will be fascinated by those who lived on our home planet, and—given enough time—everyone who hasn’t already been written about a million times will get their turn for attention.
I like the suggestion that, even if life feels boring from our own perspective, it may be fascinating from other points of view. (Also hello to whichever space historian is studying me right now! Bet you didn’t expect a shout-out when you opened this article!)
In conclusion, creative expression that we produce is not necessarily better than the creative expression that we are.
I have to admit that I find it easy to roll my eyes at people who say this sort of thing. It’s easy to dismiss it as simply a nice thought, the kind of inspirational quote that sounds pleasant but doesn’t really mean anything.
But there’s no rule against believing it anyway. And choosing to believe that my life is inherently original and creative has the odd effect of making me feel more creative in traditional ways too. It frees me from the trap of obsessing over my perceived unoriginality.
I choose how to balance my time, energy and talents at this exact moment. Perhaps I’ll create a wholly original fantasy world. Perhaps I’ll tend to a beautiful garden with my family. Or perhaps I’ll write better Lord of the Rings fanfiction than I managed as a nine-year-old!
Whatever I pick, it’s creative—and it’s original. It can’t be anything else.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.