A Writer’s Cure For Derivative Works

There is nothing new under the sun in the literary world. Most nearly everything has been done, and done quite well. In this day and age, the world of creative media is supersaturated. Anything we hope to create is undoubtedly influenced by any number of existing works. How, then, do we avoid the trap of being too derivative?  

I promote a monk-like writerly life. In this day and age of fast and easy (if casual) connections, it is not uncommon to reach outwardly for support. But I for one do not attend writer’s groups. I do not read writers’ blogs. (In fact, I barely surf the Internet). Even though many writers say that you should read, read, and then read some more, I disagree. I believe that if a writer wishes to avoid the trap of creating works that are too “derivative,” then he or she would do well to develop his or her own sense of the craft by looking within. Some so-called experts will propose that you get your start by imitating an author. But that strikes me as extraordinarily subversive to one’s creative process. It is as if you watched tapes of Michael Jordan shooting from the three-point line over and over, and you tried to imitate his movements down to the last twitch of the calf. I believe that one should develop one’s creative process from a place of individuality.

IF YOU WERE to look at my writing space, you would find that there are few novels that I keep around me. Partly, it is because I don’t see that many novels similar enough to what I am trying to create. That is not to say that I’m being completely original—it is in fact probably a symptom of someone who is not well-read. No, I keep few novels because I seek to find my own way. It is far too easy to resort to checking my favorite author’s novel to see how he did any particular thing. 

This is one of the reasons I don’t read much fiction: I do not wish to be influenced by other authors. I imagine that in times long before these, during a time when the novel was a new form, authors had to figure out how to tell compelling stories themselves. Amazon didn’t exist then: you couldn’t search for “how to write a novel” and purchase ten books out of thousands to teach you. These ancient authors applied themselves and rose to the challenge, ultimately doing something truly creative. One must learn by grappling the challenges with their own mind, not by using the tools developed by another mind.

Instead of learning derivative tutorials—which inevitably lead to unoriginal works—I try my best to get close to the source of creativity. I seek to absorb as much basic rudimentary knowledge as I can so that it becomes a part of my subconscious. When I write, it is not a conscious act in which I combine several authors’ techniques. Instead, what comes from me is (hopefully) mostly original thought that arises from the bodies of knowledge that I have grafted onto my mind. I seek knowledge of frameworks. For instance, I do not try to reverse engineer how such-and-such author achieved certain effects because this methodology is, to me, reductive rather than generative. Instead, I try to come up with original ways to engineer an effect on my own. I try to learn about the use of individual words, the poetry of sentences, the pacing of paragraphs, the arcs of narratives, and the themes and motifs of novels. I don’t concern myself with any particular author. Instead, I learn about the intricate systems of society by studying sociology and economics, and I learn about the workings of the mind by studying psychology. Altogether, these bases of knowledge become the springboard for my fiction.

THIS ROAD IS, of course, naturally longer than others. It is slower. But, as I have always held, what I learn in this hermetic process will become truly mine. Any commonalities to any other works would be largely coincidental, or at least something that came about through some truly subconscious process. It is in this way that a writer can try his or her best to become more original and avoid the risk of being accused of being too “derivative.”