Wanted: Creative work. Originality not required, inquire within.
Word count: 2,429
Stop me if this sounds familiar to you. You're in a conversation with someone about a topic that you know quite a lot about. Perhaps you're a hobbyist, maybe it's part of your profession, or you just like watching a really specific type of youtube show about this topic because you find them soothing and vaguely interesting for some reason. In any case, this is your jam, you love talking about this stuff! However, after a while, your conversation partner says something along the lines of "wow, you know so much about this, you should write about it." This kinda takes you by surprise. Sure, you know a bit about this, but no way you could write something serious about it right? After thinking it over for a split second you respond with "Oh, that's really sweet of you but I don't think I have anything new to say about it."
This happens to me all the time. I do like to try and involve people in projects I'm working on or have an interest in but whenever I ask someone to talk about something they know a lot about there's at least a 50/50 chance they will try to dismiss themselves like in the previous paragraph.
I have two things I want to say in response to that:
- That's almost certainly not true
- Who cares?!
Having something new to say is incredibly overrated, and in this blog post, I hope to convince you of this, so that next time you have this conversation I might be able to convince you to take a leap into a cool new project.
Before I get into this point properly, let me get a disclaimer out of the way. It's entirely possible that when people say this, it's more of a polite dismissal rather than something they actually believe. If that's the case, then that's fine. If you don't want to do the work for whatever reason, you don't have to, as long as you realise that's the decision you're making. However, I think there are a decent number of people that actually do believe they don't have enough to say about a topic they are passionate about. I am writing this for them and because of that, I'm going to take the statement "I don't have anything new to say about X" at face value. Let's get started!
Let's start with the easy reasons. People don't ask just anyone their opinion on specific topics. Even in instances in which it seems like you're asking complete randos about things like on forums, you usually go to one specific to your topic, where there is a good chance people will know about the things you're asking. So if someone asks you specifically about something, that's already a good indication that you have more to say about something than you might realise.
It's a fallacy to say that you even need to know about something to be able to say something new about it. I very often run ideas and projects by people who know nothing about them. For example, my mother knows very little about the maths and programming I do, but she proofreads nearly anything I write (thanks mum <3). Sometimes the questions she asks have been incredibly illuminating and have led to me taking a very different angle of approach to something.
The curse of expertise (yes that's an actual thing) can create real blind spots that take an outside perspective to illuminate. For example, I think it's very appropriate to ask recent immigrants about Dutch immigration policy, specifically because they don't know all the ins and outs of it, but have to deal with it anyway. So even if it is true you don't know anything about the subject that still makes your perspective interesting!
What does new even mean?
I think that the question of "is something new", is an incomplete one. A better version of the question is "is X new to Y?" The sentiment that you always need to be saying something novel, assumes a sort of all-knowing audience that is aware of everything being said at all times. This is clearly not true in every conceivable way. People (including me) sometimes talk about how certain children's shows like Pokemon (that's still what kids these days like right?) can be so repetitive, but this starts to make a lot more sense once you consider that the audience for such a kids show is continually renewing itself as people grow in and out of the relevant demographic.
A somewhat funny illustration of this happened to me when I was a teaching assistant (TA) for an introductory course for first-year maths students. Understandably a lot of them make very similar mistakes, meaning that as a TA you're writing the same feedback over and over again. I remember thinking after grading the first batch of homework, "gee, I've written this feedback so many times now, surely they'll remember now!" In retrospect, this seems hilariously wrong to think, because no matter how many times I write it down, they only read it once. I wouldn't have been a good TA if I told the second student to make the same mistake "oh I don't know if I have anything new to say about this."
Once you read the dictionary, everything is a remix
The title of this subsection is a bit facetious, but I still think it illustrates my point rather well. There is tremendous value in aggregating, summarising, rehashing and reformulating. If there was no value in repeating content, there would only be one tutorial on youtube for any given topic, but still, new versions of the topic du jour pop up every day. You only have to look at the rise of "edutainment" on places like Youtube across the past decade or so to realise that even if you can say the same thing in new ways that's immensely valuable.
This is also (at least partially) why reviewers, influencers and recommendation systems have exploded in numbers over the past few decades. The amount of content people are exposed to has grown so large, that people need reputable sources to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps it helps to have a new way of communicating to engage that audience, but for the most part, these people are not saying anything "new", they're reporting on things that are already out there.
Even if you were to change nothing about the information you're presenting, realising which information is relevant and fits together with which other bits of information, is hugely valuable. That is literally the job of journalists (and if you're one of those types that think journalists are just leeches or "sewage rats" then get the hell off my website).
There is also tremendous value in remixing and introducing audiences to parts of a genre they might not have been familiar with. Twilight was horror + YA Romance, and regardless of your opinion on it, I think it's hard to argue it didn't make a splash. Game of Thrones is Tolkein + dark gritty reboot (or Tolkein + porn if you're feeling less charitable). Newton was Euclid + limits. Bitcoin is cryptography + the Nigerian prince email scam. I'm being facetious here, but you get what I mean. Saying "What if X but Y" is a perfectly valid creative strategy.
So far I've mostly talked about why you have a lot more "new" things to say than you realise, but there is another side to this. The idea that everything has to be novel in some way is just bullshit. I've already talked about ways in which presenting "old" information again can be valuable and in this section, I want to take that to its logical conclusion: the wholesale dismissal of the necessity of originality.
Sometimes you want consistency, not novelty
If you've ever had an insecure friend or partner you know what I'm talking about. It takes a lot of constant encouragement to convince someone of their own value sometimes. If every time your friend needed some encouragement you'd respond with "eh, I'm just not sure what I have to say that others haven't already said," I doubt that would be good for your relationship. I also think we can all agree that "they've been saying that for years" is not a good reason to dismiss the idea that smoking is bad for you.
Advertisers know this. It's often the consistency and ubiquity of a message that determines its persuasiveness, not necessarily the contents or the quality. Sure it can help, but it's not required. That's why brand consistency is tyrant these days. If you ask me it would be naive to think that people would have gotten on board with climate change earlier if the climate activists had had a new talking point every week.
Sometimes messages are for the sender, not the receiver
I've mentioned before that this blog is a good way for me to structure my thoughts. Communicating an idea or feeling can help you structure, conceptualise or process topics or events. That's why therapy is a thing.
There is also an artistic angle to this topic. Much art, (although I would argue much less than we colloquially think) is made simply to express something, regardless of audience. Saying that those pieces need something unique in them is both disingenuous and missing the point.
Not all copying is plagiarism
It's a well-known advice to aspiring creatives to simply copy styles they like from veterans to get them started alongside practising the basics. To get started in painting you might practice basic shapes and try an early Van Gogh-style painting. If you're learning an instrument, you practice with tone progressions and popular pop songs you like. If you're looking to get into chess, you start out with well-known strategies rather than just flailing around on the board. These are just examples but my point is that there is real value in emulation.
Even though it is a bit long I think it is germane to share one of my favourite quotes here:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it's like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you're going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you're going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
And this applies to much more than just creative work. I believe that maths, coding, academic writing, basically anything follows this trend. I think that a unique style is not something you should strive for, it's something that happens organically as you produce a body of work.
Take for example my work. This very blog is very heavily modelled on blogs like joelonsoftware.com and codinghorror.com. Even though I don't actually like them that much anymore and very heavily disagree with them on many topics these days, it would be disingenuous to say they haven't influenced my style. When I was a wee kid, I wrote fan fiction of my favourite games with me in it classic mary-sue-isekai style. My style of poetry has been very much influenced by Pablo Neruda. I very deliberately model the endings of all of my significant work after the way Ian Danskin ends his Alt-right playbook videos. If I had been hell-bent on having my own style immediately after I started writing I'd never have gotten anywhere because I'd still be busy reinventing the wheel.
This of course does not mean that you should plagiarise, or not put effort into your work. There is a very important distinction between plagiarism and emulation. While simply copying somene's style can help you figure out whether it works for you or not and what makes it good, it will not help you to just churn out pure copies of other people's work. This might seem contradictory to what I've been saying for this entire post, but I don't think it is and I hope you'll get the difference.
I am also not trying to tell you have you have to do all this work. Any kind of creative work, whether you mean one specific project or whether you want to do the work of developing your own style, it can all be major time investments. You are not obligated to do any of this if you don't want to, but I hope you understand that that is the conversation you should be having with yourself, not one about originality.
You also don't have to publish everything you make, or that you have to finish everything you start. Motivation is a fickle thing, and you have to decide for yourself whether there is any value in starting or finishing something. But please, for the love of all that is creative, don't throw away your gems because "they have nothing new to say." What you have to say matters. Originality is nice if you can get it, but in the end, it will always be optional.