Friday, September 21, 2012


Watching the waves at Lunan Bay, Scotland.  Each one slightly different.
This past week I had to pitch an idea for a play to my fellow writers in a Playwriting class.  It was a bit scary because all of us were putting something out there that was not fully formed, and though we were excited about it, we didn't really know if anyone else would be.  And if no one is interested to see the story or meet the characters...that's a pretty bad sign for a play.  As I was waiting to do my pitch, I got to listen to a lot of other play ideas, most of which were pretty good and some which were quite outstanding, to be honest.  One of them in particular caught my attention: it was a scenario presented by a young guy who had chosen two characters almost exactly like mine and a situation that was very similar to the one that I had typed on a paper and stuffed in my notebook.  I am pretty sure I turned a shade whiter as he described his protagonist/antagonist and the storyline. 

When it came to my turn, I made light of the fact that my ideas were so similar to my colleague's and assured everyone that we had not been sharing brains.  The teacher graciously indicated that people often write about similar topics or situations and not to be discouraged about this; nothing is really new, she said, but no one will write the play that you write.  That helped...a bit.  My presentation was well-received (people seemed interested to see it fleshed out) so I was happy about that.  But at some point that afternoon I did think that I was one of the most unoriginal people on the planet.  Could I really not come up with something unique? Or original?

I was reading a book a few days ago which uses the model of improvisation to talk about ethics.  One of the ideas that made me sit up and take note was regarding the notion of being original.  The author suggests that being original is not the point in improvisation; the goal is to be obvious.  Hmmmm.  In fact, he goes so far as to say that we are in dangerous territory when we have "being original" as our goal.  I have read this in books on playwriting as well, that writers who try to be original usually write bad plays because they tend to sacrifice too many elements that have been proven to be helpful and important to storytelling.

Anyway, back to the book.  A claim that Samuel Wells makes is that even original sin is not original.  (By the way, original sin is a concept that Irenaeus developed in the 2nd century and Augustine built upon so it is technically not a biblical idea.)  Basically, what Wells is saying is that when we try to be original we attempt to place ourselves in the first act (creation) or in the final act (eschaton) when only God rightly occupies these places.  He suggests that instead of pursuing the idea of being "original" we should go for "obvious."  He defines obvious as "trusting that God will do what only God can do."  Part of me is annoyed that Wells is trying to take my originality and creativity away from me, but a larger part agrees with him and is actually relieved.  You have no idea how much pressure a creative person feels to always come up with something new and exciting.  And how much we believe that for the most part, we fail at this.  Or perhaps you know this very well.

Yes, we can be very creative creatures, but nothing we come up with is totally new; it is always based on something we saw or heard or observed or experienced or read and the best we can do is put our own twist on it or come up with another version or combine it with something else or package it differently.  In the case of sin, I would venture to say that it is our attempt to improve on the freedom which God gifts to us, and which is really no improvement at all.

A perfect example of the difference between trying to be original and being obvious is the Hans Christian Andersen story called The Emperor's New Clothes.  An Emperor, bored by everything, hires two weavers who promise to deliver a suit of clothes which will be invisible to those who are stupid and not suited for their station.  When the suit of clothes is delivered, the Emperor is too embarrassed to admit he cannot see it and so, it seems, is everyone else.  It takes a child to state the obvious and uncover the scam.  Chasing after originality can lead one down some slippery slopes. 

One of the most important things I have learned over time is that the things which are obvious to me are not obvious to everyone. For this very reason, I need to bring my "obvious" to the equation and offer it for the consideration of others.  So, I don't need to write a play about a never-before-thought-of situation; I only need to write a good story that states the obvious.  Obvious things like "love is stronger than hate" or "forgiveness is harder than we think but easier too" or "you don't have to be perfect to be a good friend" or "everyone feels lonely sometimes."  The play I am writing seems really obvious to me, but that is because it is something I have experienced.  And no one will be able to tell the story exactly like I do.  You might call it truth-telling or honesty.  And if people can recognise that aspect in my work and in my life, then I have done well.  Even if I am not original.

The book: Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells (Baker Publishing, 2004).

1 comment:

Shelley said...

wow thanks for this Matte. I stress most of the time that I don't have an original thought, so why write?

But I too have been told that I sometimes put things in a way that makes it more accessible to someone else...I guess that's a bit like your 'obvious' point.

thanks for this...sometimes I feel like this journey I am on is just a huge ball of yarn that I can't untangle, and then I get a bit of string out with a bit of revelation like this post.