Last year I traumatized my MFA students by inventing this thing I called the Originality Scale. At the bottom were stories we’d heard before told in familiar ways, and at the top—well, there was no top, because whatever would go at the top is so original we can’t even imagine it (yet). The middle, however, was filled with variations—old stories told in a new way, new stories told in an old way, new forms, new technology, history told with a new perspective, etc. For the rest of the semester, the students seemed troubled, taunted, tortured by where their writing would fit on the Originality Scale. I became so alarmed that I presented to the class the notion that human beings need to learn the same things over and over again, and that is perhaps why the same stories work over and over again. And could they please forget the Originality Scale.
Except I don’t really think they should forget the Originality Scale. The problem was not the Scale, the problem was the fear and paralysis induced by the Scale.
I think what my graduate students were really afraid of was that I might be telling them they shouldn’t be writers; that they weren’t original enough. But what I was really trying to say was they needed to work harder at it. To be conscious of it.
So how can we teach it?
For me, quite simply, originality often boils down to the sensation that I haven’t read a piece before—but I’ve read a lot, too much. Beginning writers often have no idea what is unoriginal because they have not read enough. They struggle to recognize clichés and often seek out writing that is comfortable and familiar. And yet because they are often young, they are frequently early adopters of using new technology in writing. Texting, Facebook, 3D-printing all turned up in my students’ work long before I ever saw them in published pieces, and this is one of the things my students are better about bringing to their work than I am my own. And it is one way to encourage originality. Technology, after all, is the one thing that has changed writing time and time again.
Beginning writers can also be very brave about breaking the rules (they don’t know the rules!). And so it can be important to not “correct” them and bully them into a standard Freytag’s pyramid formation, but rather to talk about a writer’s intentions versus a reader’s response, and what readers look for when they don’t get what they expect. Surprising is not the same thing as original and neither is weird. What is original must still make the reader feel or think or see. But it doesn’t have to follow the exact format of inciting incident, obstacles, climax, resolution.
During workshops, students can be encouraged to choose more unusual or unexpected points of view, to set a story in a less predictable location, to embrace…drum roll, please…what they know (which in my (students’) experience has included the secret tunnels of Disneyland, roller derby, cattle ranching, and the behind-the-scenes life of pretty much any low-wage job you can imagine).
And, of course, they can be asked to read…to read and read and read until they know what is out there.
The final irony is the thing that makes a piece of writing original may not actually be the thing that makes it great, and yet if a piece doesn’t have some unexpected, previously unseen something, it probably won’t be great. Good maybe, but not great. And sometimes students just need to know that.