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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

entry arrow11:51 PM | Originality is a Bad Word

I started writing because I was desperately in love with the words of Nick Joaquin. I was a college sophomore, and my Philippine literature teacher—the fictionist Timothy Montes—just made me read “May Day Eve,” and I was enthralled. Later that day, I went straight home and made my own story, taking care to carry over many of the things I fell in love with in Mr. Joaquin’s prose: the breathless lyricism (that long swirly sentence of a first paragraph! which gets echoed, in tone and style, by the last paragraph!), the melodramatic characters, and the seamless shifts in time frames which seem to be signaled by sheer fiction sorcery. When we follow the beautiful and headstrong young Agueda, for example, as she heads her way to the mirror to disprove Anastasia’s claim of midnight magical prophecies, we see her closing her eyes and mouthing the strange incantation. And when Mr. Joaquin finally describes the act of Agueda finally opening her eyes to behold her reflection on the mirror, our minds race to think: what did she see? As if to read our minds and our anticipation, Mr. Joaquin pens down the exact same question in the next line—but this time as the opening dialogue by some other character in another scene and in another time. And just like that, seamlessly, time shifts.

I was enthralled.

I wanted to do the exact same magic in a story I thought I could write. And write I did—but to my estimation now, it was a complete amateurish disaster. But so be it. That story, cribbed from the stylistics of Nick Joaquin, made me the writer I am today.

Years later, the poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino, another one of writing mentors, casually remarked of the stories I wrote: “You’re so Joaquinesque.” Which I perfectly understood. And for me, it was an observation of influence. Not to say I was being unoriginal, of course. Because I would like to believe there is no such thing as “original,” anyway.

When you swim in the world of creatives—if you are a visual artist, for example, or a designer, a musician, a writer, a performer—being called an “original” comes to you as a stamp of utmost approval, an implicit acknowledgment that you may be unique in an overwhelming ocean of mediocrity and the dogtired. We castigate “sameness,” sport an upturned nose on “derivative,” and congratulate the “individual effort” that sings for the beholder a different tune from the rest. We think of that individuality, that uniqueness as the be-all and end-all of what you do as creative.

But I’ve always felt that there is an allure to the word “original” which we mistake for virtue—a confusion that is fuzzy and misunderstood. And so let me just make my point clear: I do not believe in the “original.” There is no such thing. When I am asked questions seeking to ascertain whether we have enough fresh, new, and yes, “unique” ideas to continue to push the boundaries of literature and music and film, I get a little uneasy.

Because ideas are not a finite thing, like a well that dries up. It’s not fossil fuel—although it is a different kind of fuel that feeds a machine that embraces all. And the true answer to that question is this: if you take a closer look at history itself, and the way that life unfolds, the fact that we are still astounded by things that crop up every single day is testament to the fact that ideas—fresh and new—will always be there. People have been complaining about the death of the novel for ages, for example. The death of the novel has been declared for a few hundred years now. And yet it’s still around, it has evolved with the times. I believe boundaries exist to be pushed further.

I am also asked: Is everything derivative then? But I like “derivative.” Although I prefer a better term for this: “remix” is better—and has a jazzy sound to it. Is originality something altogether unattainable in this day and age? I am also asked, sometimes. And I think that’s looking at a green apple and complaining that it’s not red. It’s still an apple.

I’m going to say arguing for originality like as if it is some sacred thing, like a literary holy grail every writer must try to wrest in some crusade, is old hat. Any literature teacher worth her salt would tell you that there is no such thing as an original story. If you believe certain literary sources, there are only seven, or three, or 20, or 36 plots in the world, depending on whose account you are listening to.

Arguing for originality that is yours alone, unique in the whole unfolding creative history of mankind is a little too selfish, too grandiose, and always impossible: it denies the whole dynamism that we are human beings who create because we are inspired, because we are able to react, because we have the gift to transform. What for me becomes original is the way writers are able to manipulate so-called old stories into something fresh, new.

This is the transformation that is the heart of every art. Take for instance the recent Hollywood blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow, which stars Tom Cruise. It is the story of a military man—who is more a PR person than a soldier trained for combat—who is sent against his will to battle aliens. And something happens to him in the battlefield that enables him to relive the same day each time he gets killed in that battle. Which is really Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers meets the journey of the hero archetype proposed by Joseph Campbell. Nothing original about the story at all—but it was a very engaging movie, which enthralled critics and audiences alike. And what seemed fresh about it was not the hoary storyline it hitches itself to. It was how the director—and probably also the screenwriter—shaped or crafted that whole storyline that made it more immediate, scintillating, powerful.

Where do we insert “newness” in storytelling then? Storytelling is old as mankind—but if you think about it, the stories and the ways we tell them have always been shaped by the available technology prevalent at the time. Think of the caveman and his urge to tell the story of a bison hunt—his technology of cave wall, pitch, and clay would soon produce those beautiful cave paintings. Before writing was invented, the Bard used an oral means of transmitting his tale, which required specific techniques necessary for him or her to be able to retell an entire epic from memory: the repetition of certain motifs, the musicality of the narrative, the flatness of characters. You needed such mnemonic devices to be able to recite an epic. The technology of writing completely eradicated that technique: there was no more need to memorize—and soon a specific of writing emerged: more complex characters, less dependency on sound devices, restraint from the overuse of motifs. We were still telling the same stories, but we were telling them differently.

In the Age of the Internet, where short attention span and a mobile media platform dominate, we need to fit our old stories now to these new media to cope with the times.

I’m going to mention the New York writer Teju Cole, who has been taking to Twitter to write his short stories, the form of which is completely influenced by the medium: very short and concise, with the characteristic of social share-ability. There’s also “Hawk Funn,” a Facebook experiment in storytelling that we are now beginning to call the “social story.” And most of all, I’d like to mention Humans of New York, which is basically a photography blog and Facebook page—but I think it sets a good example of what storytelling is like in the social media age. You first get from HONY a striking picture of ordinary denizens of a city, and we get a caption that thoroughly humanizes the photo because of the story these denizens tell of themselves. The first time I encountered HONY, I was struck by the fact that these little stories managed to excite my imagination, that nerve center in my brain that responds to good narrative. And they were short—which is appropriate for our age. And they were easily shared. And people were responding to them in droves. If each like or comment to each of these HONY posts was the equivalent of a subscription to a literary magazine, you could say literature is alive and well and kicking in the Age of Social Media.

This is the new literature. The stories are old, but the media is new. That’s where the originality lies.

I’ve been reading a book titled Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. For him, an artist is a collector, not a hoarder—meaning to say he collects selectively the things that he loves. Artists collect ideas, and writers do this by reading. Kleon recounted stumbling on a technique of “doing poetry” by clipping out newspaper articles he likes, and then emphasizing certain words he finds fascinating, and then blacking out with a marker the rest of the article—leaving a clipping with only certain words standing out from the blackness. The words, of course, strung together read out like some found poetry.

He found later on, however, that this technique of doing poetry was not unique. A guy named Tom Phillips was doing something like this before. And the more he researched, the more he found out there was a tradition of doing something exactly like this. He uncovered William Burroughs, and then uncovered Brion Gysin before Burroughs, and then uncovered Tristan Tzara before Gysin, and then uncovered Caleb Whitefoord before Tzara—which accounted for a 250 year old tradition of black out poetry.

And he came to this conclusion: nothing is original. All creative works build on what came before, and the best we can do is not to call this “derivative” work, but to call it a “remix,” a “mash-up.” It is mash-up because we take the best of what already existed before, and then giving it our own take. According to Klein, we need to become “creative kleptomaniacs.”

Given the question of originality, it pays to be reminded about what some of the best creatives in history has said about the issue. Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” David Bowie once described himself as a “tasteful thief.” T.S. Eliot once said that great poets steal, but they turn what they have stolen into something better.

That’s transformation. That’s remixing. That’s mash-up.

PHOTO CREDITS: Photo of Nick Joaquin by Neal Oshima, for Rogue Magazine. Photo of Austin Kleon by Ryan Essmaker for The Great Discontent.

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