“We’ve all seen this before.”
This is the last thing any writer wants their audience to say about their creative content. Unoriginal, uninspired — boring. Yikes! But how to avoid it when it seems like every great idea has already been thought of?
One answer is to look at the context of your idea. What are the events surrounding your idea? What happens before and after it? What are the circumstances influencing your idea? Let me start with an example of the importance of context in creative scientific discovery.
Astronomy, Tree Rings and Archaeology
In the early 20th century — long before the introduction of carbon isotope dating — archaeologists struggled to date the pre-European civilizations of the American southwest in places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. They guessed these population centers were about 2,000 years old because it was a nice, round number and nobody could tell them otherwise.
The fallacy persisted until help came along from an unlikely source — an astronomer from the University of Arizona in Tucson named Dr. Andrew E. Douglass. Douglass was studying the effects of sun spots on Earth’s climate. The tricky thing about that was trying to piece together a historical record for something as ephemeral as sunshine. As it turned out, trees excel at doing that very thing.
Douglass discovered that trees in the same geographic area recorded distinctive patterns in their rings (due to variations in climate) which he used to identify the calendar year in which the rings were grown. He had invented the science of dendrochronology, the study of tree time.
Using this technique and some really old bristlecone pines, he was able to create a continuous timeline dating back to A.D. 1260. Douglass was in the right time and place to use his discovery to date the ancient civilizations in the southwest.
With the help of a team of archaeologists, Douglass used dendrochronology to date wooden beams found in a dwelling near Show Low, Arizona. By comparing the growth-ring patterns of the beam to the continuous timeline Douglass had developed, he could tell the exact year when the tree had been cut down to build the dwelling. The dwellings were only about 800 years old at the time.
There are several original ideas in this example. First, Douglass had to make the leap between sun spots and tree ring growth patterns. Then, someone (The National Geographic Society) had to recognize the potential application of this to archaeology. And there was still no guarantee of success. According to Emil Hardy who was part of the study,
“By 1929 Douglass reached the break-through point in his studies. Had this been achieved a decade or two earlier, he would certainly have experienced agonizing delays for…the mood of archaeologists was not then ready for him. But, by happy coincidence in the accident of history, the man’s idea and the technique were introduced to the discipline about to be vastly enriched at the right moment in its progress.”
1. The Context of Time
It wasn’t just that Douglass had come up with an original new idea, it was the context in which his discovery occurred which is significant. The time was right. His audience was receptive to new ideas. Archaeologists had been mired in their old way of thinking and were craving something new to stimulate their own growth and new discoveries.
The relevancy of any creative work is wholly dependent upon the time in which it is created and consumed. When Ira Levin published Rosemary’s Baby in 1967 it resonated with an audience concerned about changing social mores in regards to religion and sexuality. If it were written today, it would probably receive lackluster attention. Conversely, George Orwell’s 1984 enjoyed a dramatic resurgence in popularity after the 2016 elections because it perfectly described America’s political angst — sixty-seven years after it was first published.
2. The Context of Continuity
Douglass didn’t come up with his ideas in isolation, scientists rarely do. Almost all scientific ideas start with what’s been done before, and this doesn’t make them any less original.
Creatives tend to look at what’s been done before as a kind of plagiarism check to avoid repeating the same ideas. Scientists look at previous work as the raw materials for creating something new. The archaeologists working for the Geographic Society didn’t see Douglass’s work as lessening the value of their own. They needed him to succeed in order to propel themselves forward.
Learn from other creatives with a feeling of awe, not jealousy. Someone else’s success with an idea doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to anybody else. It’s an opportunity for others to build upon that idea and make it even better. Just because you aren’t Bram Stoker, doesn’t mean you can’t write a thrilling and distinctive vampire novel.
3. The Context of Disparate Ideas
The part I like most about Douglass’s story is how it encompasses several different fields of study. If Douglass had focused exclusively on astronomy, the story would be far less inspiring.
Modern creativity comes from the union of dissimilar ideas. If you’re a genre writer, read outside your genre to see what other people are writing about. If you’re excited about a topic but feel like its been done to death, combine it with something it’s never been combined with before and see where it leads. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes how he came up with the idea for his first book, Carrie, by doing just that:
“Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea…”
Let me put it another way. All the diversity of human history is based on the combination of four basic building blocks in our DNA. Think of it. You don’t have to reinvent DNA to be a unique human being and you don’t have to invent a new genre to write something original.
4. The Context of Self
Finally, look at your ideas from someone else’s perspective. If you only listen to your own internal monologue, then of course everything will start to sound the same. In How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, James Kisner writes,
“Beginning writers are also misled by the notion that there is nothing new under the sun, or ‘it’s all been done before.’…It is a chilling denial of our creative instincts that effectively stifles originality.”
He must be right considering the explosion of creative writing since that book was published in 1987.
Put your work out there. Test your ideas by sharing them with your readers. Friends and family can be good sounding boards and no, you aren’t stealing their ideas by acting on their suggestions.
The one unoriginal idea I would like to banish forever is the notion that writers work in isolation. This is just not true. When you sit down to write, you’re collaborating with every author you’ve ever read, every podcast you’ve ever listened to and every movie you’ve ever seen. They are there to help you. Use them to your advantage.
Haury, E.W. 1962. HH-39: Recollections of a dramatic moment in southwestern archaeology. Tree-Ring Bulletin 24(3–4):11–14.