On Originality

There are  about 5,300 ASK messages right now sitting in the queue. Which is why yours hasn’t been answered, I expect.

One question I keep seeing over and again, even more than “What MFA program should I do?” (I do not answer this, because my answer would probably be: “I have no idea. I never did an MFA program. I just wrote stuff.”) is, over and over, a variant on “How can I possibly be original? The stories I want to tell have already been told.”

Because sometimes you do not have to be original, as answers have already been given, I will answer with a quote from an essay by John Barth, who points out that our worrying that what we are writing is not new is, well, not new:

Once upon a time, perusing a book about the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, I noted that some twelve centuries before Homer, in about 2000 B.C.E., the scribe Khakheperresenb was already voicing what I like to call Khakheperresenb’s Complaint: “Would I had phrases that are not known,” the scribe laments, “in new language that has not been used not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” I used to comfort my students (and myself) with the reflection that for all we know, two or three millennia of sea and sunrise metaphors might be like the first few million stars in our galaxy—a mere drop in the bucket!—while at the same time acknowledging that Khakheperresenb’s feeling of having arrived late to the party is not to be dismissed. …

If I could time-travel back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, I would console Khakheperresenb with the familiar paraphrase of Walt Whitman: “Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.” Or André Gide’s comforting remark, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Originality, after all, includes not only saying something for the first time, but re-saying (in a worthy new way) the already said: rearranging an old tune in a different key, to a different rhythm, perhaps on a different instrument. Has that been said before? No matter: on with the story!