Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Original and Also-rans

The issue of 'original' and intrinsic verses extraneously applied value.

This is an idea that I have heard referenced directly and by implication multiple times in the past months, and I'm sure if you stop to consider it, you will will realize the same is true for you. Have you not heard the lament that, 'Nothing is new in the world', as if 'newness' is a core requirement for anything to be considered worthy of our short attention spans? Or what about the idea that if someone else 'discovered' or 'thought of' something before someone else, the second person's individual path to understanding has no merit because they weren't 'first'? Consider the following quote from Clive Cussler's Treasure.
'If Junius Venator's voyage to the Americas was absolutely proved ... history books needed to be revised and new chapters written.
'Poor Leif Eriksson and Christopher Columbus would be relegated to also-ran footnotes!'(p. 455 italics added for emphasis)
Granted, Cussler explores historical possibilities and modern implications of such fascinating possibilities in his adventures rather than known fact, but I think my stance on the matter shines through clearly. Why, why, why does a thing have to be the first one ever to have full merit? Two people come up with the same eureka moment completely separately from each other but one does it a few years before the other, so the second person's journey doesn't measure up? 

Or consider in the more mundane world as opposed to the cutting-edge of the arts and sciences. (Odd that they can be paired at all, no?) One community faces a difficulty and after much struggle, they come upon a solution that finally gets things back in order. Another community comes to be in the same situation. If so much value and worth is declared in doing something no one else has done before, do they ignore the solution right in front of them because it is devalued as unoriginal? Is the modern world so stubborn that we insist on seeking something different just because we can't respect or even see any value in something classic?

I know that there are places and venues where the drive for the new is something we all understandably appreciate. Most of us would abhor being bound to the original generations of the computers and cell-phones. I'm not saying that thinking should be confined to the list of what has been done before. They did that in the dark ages, and society rather decayed. I am saying that it might be good to consider the 'also-rans' in another light.

According to dictionary.com, 'original' has five top-listed definitions.


belonging or pertaining to the origin or beginning of something, or to a thing at its beginning: The book still has its original binding.
new; fresh; inventive; novel: an original way of advertising.
arising or proceeding independently of anything else: an original view of history.
capable of or given to thinking or acting in an independentcreative, or individual manner: an original thinker.
created, undertaken, or presented for the first time: to give the original performance of a string quartet.
The modern world seems to have an obsession with definitions two and five while disregarding one, three, and four. They only want something new, ever looking, never satisfied, simply because as soon as the something 'new' is found, it becomes 'old' and invalidated. Rather, consider the terms 'independent' and 'individual'. If we chose to focus on the value of the person's journey for its value to them rather than whether it entertained our own boredom, we would discover a world overflowing with value. Lots of 'value' there, but then that is the point. I still remember the moment, around age seven, when I made the connection between 'pancake' and 'pan' + 'cake', i.e. a cake made in a pan. I was quite excited when I explained it to another but they just looked at me like 'Yeah, so? Duh. Why even mention it?' Despite being impressionable, I knew that my discovery was my own, even if all the adults already knew it. And truly, a young child making the connection between language patterns and etymology without help is worth respect.

Consider also, that the human race has a similar genesis and similar experience to draw upon. We are born, we live, we learn, we work to survive, we have families, we die. We have the same earth, and the same general resources. Despite local variations of climate and geography, the need for earth and water also tie us together. Ultimately, we are all pulling from the same bag of resources to create our expectations and interactions in life. While the more variables mathematically increases the possible combinations exponentially, there will always be themes of commonality, especially the more people there are to make the combinations. Rather than finding these patterns as distasteful and boring, consider the beauty implied therein.

A human does not need to invent something no one else has ever seen to be valid as a human. They are already their own unique person. No one else has experienced my combination of personality, history, thoughts, tests and trials, hopes and dreams, failures and successes. Others have experienced abuse. Others have experienced serious illness and death of a parent. Others are riding the disorienting roller coaster called dysautonomia. There is even a pattern of dysautonomia patients with traumatic childhoods and trigger illnesses. But rather than invalidating my experience, or those of another, having a community of shared experience brings strength, comfort, support, and courage. If it works this way with the hard things in life, why can we not see the creative and productive in the same way?

A sibling has a particular gift but feels threatened when another expresses interest in the same activity? Or the second sibling doesn't dare express their interest for fear of being a 'copycat' or trying to steal the show or crowding the first sibling's scene? If we learn to value each person for who they are rather than seeing everything as a competition for fleeting value, I suspect life would be much more fulfilling for everyone.

I first heard the term 'also-ran' in the lyrics to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. His brothers resented the legitimate heir because they feared who he was meant they didn't count. Not having been there, I can't say much to the family dynamics involved, but the jealousy was real and it nearly led to Joseph's murder. The end of the story has Joseph testing his unknowing brothers to see if they still hold the biases that broke the family in the first place.

Sibling rivalry is only one manifestation of the obsession with all things original. The biases evident in the story are indicative of the larger picture, all the same. I have known those who are what I call 'purists' of the classics, such that only the six-hour Pride and Prejudice has any real value, for example. I have always loved adaptations of classic stories for how they allow another perspective on a previously one-dimensional picture. The more perspectives, the richer the possible understanding. In stating this, it occurs that adaptations are a combination of first-time/beginning original and fresh-take/inventive original. Not all adaptations are equally appealing, but to blame any failure on the fact that it was an adaptation, on the fact that it is patterned after something already done, is superbly short-sighted.

Likewise, not all similarities in stories are derivative. My creative writing short story about an underground culture could not have been inspired by The City of Ember for the simple reason that I'd never heard of it before the class workshop critique on my already written short story. I can't say it was the best story written, but to dismiss it because it was like another was to miss what value it had on its own merits. (Dr. P said it was a novel in disguise, so even if I think the point I was trying to express has value, my dislike for writing means it won't get attention for a good long time, if ever...)

I am not arguing this post because of my personal examples, but I am using them to demonstrate my meaning simply by virtue of them being the most ready examples for me to work with. I am somewhat creative by nature in that I don't see a purpose in recreating the wheel when others already do so and far better than I could. I get the inclination to find a new way to do things, to organize things, to present things. The creative urge is a means of introducing originality to our world. I think we just get hung up on thinking that is how things must be judged rather than being an indication of seeking growth. The very notion of the 'shame' of 'also-rans' is evidence of this flawed judgment. If we can encourage and praise growth in every individual, however repetitive it may seem, I think it will naturally lead to a creative world. And if we focus on our own growth instead of comparing and judging, I think we will find ourselves less bored, burned-out, and biased against the patterns natural to life.

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