”Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”
The above quote is from American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch in the article Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules, published in MovieMaker Magazine in January 2004. While all of Jarmusch’s rules are on-point and inspiring reading for any creative person (And as I know that most of the people who come here are writers I wholeheartedly recommend you take a look) it’s this one that resonated with me the most.
‘Originality’ is an albatross around all our necks. It’s an abstract idea that’s difficult to define and nigh-on impossible to solidify into foolproof examples, yet we’ve been culturally trained to chase it, especially in a day and age where people’s cultural knowledge is higher than it’s ever been. As writers, we are haunted by the need to stand out from the pack, to give the audience something completely new lest we suffer the worst fate possible to us: to not be read.
I know that this exact worry has stalked me in my own writing over the last couple of years, and we’ve all had that horrible sensation when our memories sneak in while we’re nurturing our new favourite idea, and whispers in our ear “That sounds just like…”. After a while stops being simply a voice, but a Sword of Damocles swinging over our head every time we start to develop something; we work away, fashioning an idea into something that will become our creative focus, hoping the whole time that that sword won’t drop this time, but knowing deep down that it eventually will.
And when it does, it can kill all enthusiasm for a project if it lets us. One of my major failings in recent times, I’ve come to realize, is that this is exactly what I’ve allowed to happen, when what I should’ve been asking was, “What am I bringing to this thing?” Many hugely successful and revered works have drawn heavily from the past, but it’s been the author’s personal touch that elevated from pastiche or plagiarism, into something new. Not new in content, but new in spirit. At the end of the day, isn’t that what draws us to creative works?
History is about the same things happening over and over for different reasons, with the same results; even our own lives tend to revolve around us repeating the same behaviours and trying not to (That is, depending on the results). These things have always driven fiction in theme, so why be afraid to let it drive the form as well? After all, even the creative people most praised for being ‘original’ eventually show the influences that shaped their work; it’s a plaudit that has been habitually directed at Jarmusch himself, and for him to reveal his true process as he does in the above quote is not just a revelation, but a bloody relief.
From now on I’ll be keeping his words in mind. It’s the kind of thing you’ll probably never hear at uni or school, and in a strange way that’s all the better for it. In a climate where the shelves are stacked with books of varying degrees of gaudiness and bold claims, all claiming they’ll tell you ‘how to write’, sometimes it’s nice to hear the hard-won words of a master.