The Originality Paradox

Photo: Bakhrom Tursunov via Unsplash

“Originality is bunk.” – author Michael Chabon

from the documentary “The Creative Brain”

For the longest time I would hear people talk about creative success as defined by “finding your own voice” and I would think “well, who’s voice do I have?” It’s easy to hear that and think that every creative person has to be completely original in order to succeed.

We are all unique and potentially have a unique perspective to share, but everything is built upon something else. In 1926 the English philosopher C.E.M. Joad criticized Americans for believing that “… the height of originality is skill in concealing origins.” One would hope that later in life he came to his senses and discovered that the Americans had it right.

Joad’s quote has been repackaged, reworded and reused by countless creative people over the years, from Tom Ford to Conan O’Brien and is often misattributed to various people. But the essential truth it contains is that something which appears original is just built upon things we aren’t yet aware of. The originality comes from the uniqueness of our perspective and the uncommonness of the source material we choose. Beyond that it comes down to the quality of our execution and how well we are able to communicate our ideas.

Sometimes we don’t even fully understand what our inspiration is until reflecting on the thing that we made. We store up so many experiences never really knowing if and when they will be important to us. Ultimately, introspection is how we will get to something people think of as originality.

When we create from our own experience the origins of our inspiration are sometimes concealed even to ourselves until we make the effort to go back and analyze what may have inspired it. Other times we’re more conscious of what we’re drawing on, but if we run it through our own unique set of filters what comes out the other side is part of our own story.

An excerpt of Hanna Gadsby describing her autism.

Hanna Gadsby, of whom I’m a huge fan, is a controversial figure in the world of comedy and that’s because she’s doing something significantly different. She performs what is essentially a one-woman show that includes stand-up comedy and advanced storytelling structure to deal with serious subjects. She make you laugh as much as she makes you think: a true original.

However, on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast Working It Out she revealed that she based her show “Douglas” on the structure of a Bach fugue. That seems like an original idea to me, but it’s also repurposing Bach fugues and so in a strict literal sense, not original at all.

But she’s combining things in a unique way and drawing on her own personal story, so in that sense it is completely original. There’s only one Hanna Gadsby and there’s only one you and me. By drawing on our experiences we are able to create original content in a way that only we can.

My latest album The Multiverse: Knowing takes its title from the experience of finding out that I’m on the autism spectrum. The feeling I try to communicate in the title track that is one of hopeful serenity. The melody is mostly four repeating notes, but repeating in different ways.

(You can listen below.)

To me these four notes represent an enlightenment, a simplification, in a way; it’s the clarity I got from knowing myself better and how to care for myself which made everything easier. The harmony is a cycle moving from mysterious sounding chords into a process of resolution to a tonal center. This represents a similar thing to me, but more of a realization that life is going to be a cycle of conflict resolution, which I am now better equipped to deal with.

That being said, I didn’t set out to do that. This just happened to be what I was working on right when I found out, and in the process it became obvious that those thoughts were informing the composition. I could have tried to complicate the piece but once I realized what it represented to me, the simplicity became crucial.

“Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée, tout se transforme” “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” — Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier

Is the tune original? I don’t know. It’s not groundbreaking or revolutionary. It’s not going to change jazz forever, but it’s personal to me. Even the groove that I play on it comes from my beginnings on the drums playing along with Stewart Copeland. I’m not copying him, but that’s part of the source material.

As the scientist Antoine Lavoisier once said “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” Once we relieve the pressure of being completely original and instead focus inward we can mine our own personal archive of experience and source material… and finally find our own voice.

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