The Tyranny of Originality

The Tyranny of Originality

Some students recently wrote to me about their concern with being original in their art, their need to be original. They said that if they have a great idea that they love and then someone else mentions a similar idea, it kills the idea for them. They can no longer make that piece of art, even though they were really excited about it before.

This is one of the myriad ways, subtle and not-so-subtle, that we can block ourselves as creative beings, throwing water on our beautiful creative fire. So, I want to take a few minutes to address the question of “originality,” which can be so deadly to artists.

As I wrote to my students, their reaction to other people having similar ideas to theirs likely hides some false beliefs that don’t serve them and make the process of making art less fun, free and inspired than I believe it is meant to be. If you harbor fears of not being original, it is helpful to uncover exactly what those beliefs are and write them down. For instance, you might have a fear/false belief, “I don’t have anything original to contribute” or it could be “All the good ideas are already taken.”

Writing out our beliefs is a first step in bringing them to the light of consciousness, so we can begin to question those beliefs and see through them, no longer letting them stop us from being the joyful, creative beings we can be. In my classes and one-on-one mentoring, I guide people through a process for powerfully transforming these limiting beliefs and setting ourselves free. Begin by bringing them to light and questioning them. This can sometimes be enough to release their hold on us.

Here are some thoughts of mine on the topic of originality, which might help you give up limiting fears and beliefs about this:

ButterflyI believe that originality is a fiction. We never do anything that is not influenced and made possible by literally thousands of other beings, including ones we don’t even know about. We are so deeply interconnected in the web of all life, who can say where our ideas come from?

The whole history of art and humankind is behind each creative act we take, and a whole lot more is behind it than that. The influences and experiences of our entire life are inside of us, informing each act of creation. The movements of the wind, the stars, the trees and animals also are all speaking to us every day. Understanding this interconnected nature of life and our indebtedness to thousands of others is part of acknowledging that ultimately our creations come though us not from us.

If we can start to be willing channels of that amazing creative flow and get out of our own way, we can also trust that “just being me” in my art, and in my life, is enough. I do not have to try to pretend to be someone else. I am me, and there has never been another like me. That is originality enough, and yet I cannot take credit for that either, because I am a creation of the Divine.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” — Martha Graham

paintbrushesSo we hold this beautiful paradox, we are completely unique, yet our creations are a blend of thousands of beings. I believe it is essential to acknowledge this debt in all our art works, all our creations, all that we do—not to take the whole credit for any idea or invention. We are tuning into collective forces at work, tapping into creations that yearn to be born, opening ourselves to be available to them, and giving them life.

I like to use the metaphor of a stained glass window (and by the way, I heard this metaphor from someone else, but I can’t remember who!). As an artist I am like a stained glass window, and my creations are the colors and patterns that are created on the floor, when the sunlight comes through me. My creations look uniquely like me, the stained glass window. They unmistakably bear the mark of me, having come through my form, my experiences and personality, but the light itself that makes this art possible comes through me from a much greater source. Without it, no art.

Inspiration works like that, in my experience. It comes through us from somewhere beyond us. As it moves through us, it takes the form of us, we shape it with our craft, our abilities, our experiences as best we can. But the original source is not ours.

man_writing_journal_benchT.S. Eliot said, “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In other words, if you imitate, you have failed to truly make it your own, put your own stamp on it. Then it feels inauthentic and half-baked. When you “steal” a great idea, you integrate it into your being, your style, and modify it to meet your needs. This act of “theft” is part of art—learning from the masters and from our contemporaries, being in dialogue with them—but a transformation takes place as it comes through you.

So go on out and be your completely unique and original selves and stop worrying about being original in your art. Acknowledge your indebtedness, celebrate your interconnectedness, and let yourself be a conduit for the amazing forces of the universe creating through you.

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