As a fantasist, there’s a subtle, insistent pressure to do something new. It’s unspoken that ‘good’ fantasy is ‘new’ fantasy—doing what’s not been done before, telling tales that haven’t been told before. New concepts, new ideas, new everything. Even the trend toward speculative fiction (SF) instead of science fiction (SF) suggests this. Give us weird, incomprehensible worlds, the fashion whispers, not scientific possibilities.
As a writer of fairy tales, there’s a continual, almost chronic, backward gaze. These tales have been told and retold forever and again. Someone told them for the first time once, but who they were, where they were, or what language they spoke—who knows? In a way, they’re speaking to us still
As a contributor to an ongoing blogalectic, Jenna St. Hilaire drew sharply the tension between originality and derivation. How accurate is the writing rule to ‘Be Original’, really, Jenna asks? We’re urged to do something completely original, and yet we cannot seem to escape the backward gaze, writing into the future while listening to the voices of the past. (That’s actually a good working definition of ‘present,’ by the way.)
Today’s great act of rebellion is tomorrow’s everybody’s doing it, and after all that, it was probably done every day in ancient Rome. Just how different can we get, honestly?
It’s been in vogue lately, Jenna said, to complain about familiar tropes in fantasy—the complaint usually amounting to ‘Yeah, well, we’ve read this before.’ Obi-Wan and Gandalf were both mentors—heck, they may have even been Jungian Wise Ones—so why are we getting these other mentors and training sequences? Get over it, we gripe. Give us something new.
Admittedly, that sort of complaint is a bit encouraging to hear occasionally. There have been some pretty awful derivative fantasy movies and novels lately. It might be the economy convincing the studios to play things safe and churn out films that people seem to like, it might be something else. But I agree with those critics who are saying that 2010 shows us what terrible things can happen when derivation goes to seed.
But that sort of complaint, if accepted as modus operandi, can be toxic to true creativity. Jenna observed that
traditions and tropes, ideas and archetypes of literature are shared associations. They allow us to know ourselves, our peers, ancestors and descendants, and be known by those who hear or read our stories. They carry meaning. And the communal aspect of storytelling involves the reader as well as the writer: two people, each bringing their own perspective to a common experience. Traditions open communication, making things easier for both parties.
This ‘communal aspect of storytelling’ suggests an important distinction. Originality and creativity are not the same.
I would define creativity as the act of making artistic expression that speaks its deep meaning to the heart of the listener. (And I’m using ‘listening’ symbolically—you can ‘listen’ to visual art, too.) Originality are those flavors of creativity unique to the artist. No one else has handled a brush quite this way, or given this exact musical feel, or told this story.
But the framework of creativity is derivation—that is, the backcloth of the art is dependent on what has already been drawn, told, or acted. Creativity is thus a conversation between originality and derivation, between this new, unique individual artist, and every other unique, individual artist.
One way of understanding this conversation would be the kinship circle. A new artist enters into the kinship circle of art. She does not imperiously bring her own portfolio to shout down the other voices in the circle. Nor does she slavishly mimic those already in the circle when she arrives.
She enters, instead, into a welcoming family who give and receive freely and lovingly with each other. Her responsibility is neither to dominate nor submit, but to give what she has, accept what is given to her, and make it her own. The kinship circle is a creative, open space where we speak in harmony and dissonance, silence and noise, each voice distinct but joined to every other.
The backward gaze, then, is receiving from the past, while bringing our own originality to retelling and recreating. This spares us descending into either increasingly elite and esoteric modes of expression (art films and modern poetry, for instance) or into crass, populist commercial slavery, dime fantasy and nickel romance. Both these categories have their place—I personally enjoy art films and dime fantasy—but we shouldn’t accept either of them as our ideal.
Perhaps, rather than the charge ‘Be original,’ we should tell ourselves and other aspiring writers/artists, ‘Be creative.’ Initiatives like New Fairy Tales do this remarkably, fostering true creativity, both derivative (we’ve read fairy tales before) and original (but we’ve never read this one, or not quite like this).
Take hold, as the Teacher says, of the one thing without letting go of the other. Look backward and forward. Take the tropes and make them your own. There had been Wise Ones and mentors before. There had never been Dumbledore.