Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.
That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.
I gave a version of this speech to a creative writing class last week. Before I was even finished, one of my students raised her hand. “That’s fine,” she said, “but I went to a high school where everybody actually did fit the stereotypes. There were the jocks, the nerdy kids, the farm boys, the Goth kids . . .” I told her I found it hard to believe that her schoolmates, taken one at a time, fit those stereotypes any better than she did herself. But she was insistent. “The whole town,” she said, “it was like any other stereotypical farm town in Montana.”
I challenged her on that one too. “Tell us about your town,” I said. “Help us understand what’s so stereotypical about it.”
“Think about any farm town,” she said. “Everybody drives around in muddy farm trucks.” We nodded. That did sound maybe a little bit stereotypical. “And at Christmas, everybody goes to the grocery store to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols.”
“You do what at Christmas?” somebody asked.
“We go to the grocery store to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols. Like any other small town.” She was astonished to learn that nobody in the room (except for a classmate who happened to be from a town fifteen miles away from her) had ever heard of such a thing. It soon came out that those stereotypical classmates of hers often rode horses to school, and that her stereotypical principal took care of the horses during the school day.
All that to say, there is no such thing as a stereotypical high school or small town or farmer or principal. No stereotype or category can stand against the concrete reality of specific details. This young woman thought she lived in a stereotypical town when in fact she lived in a town where the locals gather at the grocery store to sing Christmas carols, where the high school principal doubles as an hostler.
Writing what you see means, among other things, paying attention to the detail that you couldn’t have known about if you hadn’t been there. I’ve got some ideas about what life in small-town Montana is like, but I wouldn’t have guessed the grocery store hymn sing or the high school horse corrals.
In one of my online writing classes, a Floridian wrote about the morning she woke up to see snow in her yard—the only time she had seen snow in her life. It wasn’t a bad piece of writing. All the sentences were good, each paragraph hung together, there were some good similes and metaphors to liven things up. But something was missing, and it took me a minute to put my finger on it. The problem was this: her story read exactly like it would have read if you or I had written a story about a little girl in Florida who sees snow for the first time. Everything you would expect was there, from her looking out the window and not believing her eyes, to the annoying little brother hitting her in the back of the head with a snowball, then smirking and ducking behind a tree. But I find it impossible to believe that nothing happened on that day that I couldn’t have predicted. I can’t even predict what’s going to happen in Florida on a regular day—but a snow day?
A week or two later, the same writer wrote a piece about watching a lizard shed its skin. She simply told what she saw, and the result was mesmerizing: “Twisting his head as far right as it would go, he grabbed a piece of his skin and pulled it away. It tore with a sound like tissue paper. His jaw moved up and down as he chewed and swallowed. Then he turned his head left, pulled off another section of skin, and swallowed it.” A couple of paragraphs later, the lizard startles and dashes away: “He leaped off the ledge of the porch and into the garden below. A few pieces of skin flew off as he did, but the rest of it stayed on his back as he disappeared into the grass.”
That writing is fresh, vivid, sensory. It invites me to experience something I’ve never experienced before. It had never occurred to me that a lizard pulling off his old skin would make a sound like tissue paper. The flakes of skin flying off as the lizard jumps from the porch—who would have guessed that? And yet it makes perfect sense: of course that’s what would happen. But you would only know it if you had been there.
That description of the lizard strikes me as highly original. But that originality doesn’t derive from a flight of fancy, or an exercise of imagination. It came from a writer paying attention to the world around her and telling us what she saw.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.