As a student of writing, nothing freaked me out more than that moment in class when the teacher stopped talking, took in a breath and said, ‘Right, let’s workshop.’ Initially I would be embarrassed by my sprawling prose (I’m a perennial drafter). But the main source of my horror was my inability to come up with any genuinely new ideas. No matter what I thought of, I knew that a simple search in Google would render my ideas ‘already thought of’ (except, perhaps if I was writing a profile). As a student of writing I took the notion of an original idea quite literally. I thought it was my job to find something never written about before. Ever. Anywhere.
In my efforts to better grasp what makes an idea, I did a search on Google. There’s nothing original in the action of searching a topic, nor is there anything original in including those results within the body of your prose. But there was something interesting about the results that I got for ‘ideas’. Many of the page one results had nothing to do with ideas per se. They used I-D-E-A as an acronym for something else. They connected ‘idea’ with other things. As an aggregation of worldwide use of the word, they were as confused as I was. Inherent in their inability to give true shape to the word, these results pointed to my hunch that ideas are idealised.
Among them was an online idea generator. ‘Type a single word and receive a page chock-full of inspiration!’ it reads. It then pulls images, quotes, colours and other paraphernalia relating to that word from the Internet. It’s a system that recognises that there’s no such thing as an original idea. No one ever comes to an idea in the absence of inspiration (direct or indirect). Creativity experts have long established that you can’t have an original idea without first understanding the domain in which you’re working. You can’t build an original idea in a vacuum. You need other ideas. To me what they’re saying is an idea is never really original. Ideas are by their nature, derivative.
I’m not a scientist (not in the vaguest) but this week Professor Brian Cox has captured my imagination in his series Wonders of Life. He explains ‘energy’ from a physics perspective. ‘Energy is conserved. It’s not created or destroyed,’ he says. It seems a physicist can calculate the potential energy at the top of a waterfall and observe the exact energy output at its foot (the movement, sounds, heat and so on). In nature, says Cox (if I’ve understood it correctly), energy moves through different forms, but it doesn’t multiply - the total amount of energy on our planet remains. Perhaps this is what happens with ideas; one idea gives shape to another. Maybe a transfer of energy is what makes it possible for the same idea to have new life in the words of different writers. Maybe an idea’s energy simply takes a different form.
Currently I’m working on a long form piece about a topic that’s interested me for a long time. But as I get deeper into the research I can see that other writers have also dabbled in aspects of it. My younger writer-self would have come to a grinding halt at this discovery. ‘Oh dear, it’s been done,’ I would have thought. But now I realise that the originality involved in the piece isn’t so much about the main idea as much as the exposition, execution and context of the words. What is it that I uncover about this topic? What is it that my readers will want to know about this topic? In what ways will this topic be framed differently for the publication I’m writing for? What effect will my voice have? In what ways will my perspective shape the energy of this idea differently?
Last year at NonfictioNow a writer put a question to keynote speaker Jose Dalisay (from the Philippines). The writer wanted to know Dalisay’s perspective as a Pilipino writer who writes about the Philippines. What did Dalisay think about writers writing about their home countries while living abroad? What authority did those writers have if they weren’t actually there to observe things first hand? That, Dalisay answered, is precisely the authority they have. A writer’s authority is inherent. Every perspective is unique. Ideas might circulate in our collective consciousness (and on search engines) but what makes each iteration different is what the writer brings to it.