Is Combining Ideas Our Last Hope for Originality?

As a kid, I was obsessed with being original. Knowing that the world was overflowing with repetition, remakes, reboots, and stolen ideas, I tried to acquire as many personal idiosyncrasies as possible. All I accomplished was turning myself into a pretty weird kid. And as I grew older, I realized that the so-called original stuff I created and the outlandish art I consumed was not really all that extraordinary.

You’d think I’d have gotten discouraged early on and given up on creativity altogether. I knew I’d never write a mind-blowing fantasy epic with characters and concepts nobody on this Earth had ever heard of. I knew I’d never invent some insanely clever card game with mechanics unlike any experience on the shelves. So why didn’t I give up? Why doesn’t anyone else give up, for that matter? Why do creators keep creating?

You’ve probably already heard some form of the adage: there are no new ideas, just new ways to present them. And I think that’s true, to an extent. But I don’t think that’s enough. We may have some great best-sellers being written with semi-original concepts, like the Divergent series—a dystopia disguised as utopia with some unique elements sprinkled here and there. But are those slight twists to a classic plot enough to call the book completely original? I think writers can take their ideas a step further.

Here’s the trick: don’t kill yourself trying to come up with an original idea, come up with a handful of good ideas that work, then mix them together. The ideas will, hypothetically, undergo a kind of chemical reaction, colliding and building off of each other in interesting ways. This will, I think, result in something relatively unique. This doesn’t mean you can simply combine stolen ideas—you have to first apply the skills you already had to come up with something you think is as original as it gets, or at least presented in an original way. Then come up with a few more. Then blend them together in a single work of art.

Let’s take writing, for example, since this blog is based at the UNO MFA in writing program. You come up with a plot you hope is original—maybe about a woman with two prosthetic legs training to be an acrobat who finds herself caught up in a bit of international espionage. Could make for an interesting, albeit bizarre read. But what are the odds that somebody’s already written about a differently-abled acrobat? Or an acrobat involved in espionage for that matter? Ideas that are especially unique run a dangerous risk of seeming like a total rip-off if, by a terrible coincidence, somebody thought of a similar idea. Vague and broad ideas will keep you safer from feeling like a copycat, but you’ll also be stuck with vague and broad ideas.

So how can you keep your acrobat story as fresh and specific as possible? Combine other ideas. Maybe you had another idea for a book about a romance with an intersex man, or a woman who’s trying to escape her past as a contract killer? Is there any effective way to combine these ideas without creating a convoluted story that’s arbitrarily complex? If there is, you might have the building blocks of a story that has a much higher chance of originality. Maybe the acrobat falls in love with the intersex man—the only man who knows about her past as an assassin, and who is inevitably captured by the government until the acrobat agrees to revive her violent skills and kill three prominent politicians.

Now, I just thought up that nonsense on the spot and I’m in no way endorsing that idea as a winner. And, of course, it’s always best to keep things on the simple side. But there’s no reason that that mess of combined ideas can’t provide for a relatively straightforward plot. It’s the original ideas—the concepts of the intersex man and the acrobat that will (hopefully) get you excited and make you confident that you’re doing something no one has attempted before—at least not in this configuration. With all those elements blended, it will open up the plot to all sorts of new and organic connections. It’s not just a book about intersex people and the man’s gender identity, but also how that relates to the woman with prosthetic legs—and possibly the prejudice from the government that captures him. See, the chemical reactions are already happening in my brain and new ideas are flowing. You’ll have to excuse me if this sounds like the worst novel ever imagined, to you. I’m just brainstorming.

Originality for the sake of originality is not something to be sought after on its own merits. If the material isn’t good, no one will care that it’s fresh. And if even it’s a rip-off of something else but is still an amazing work of art, people will probably love it anyway. You have to determine how important it is to do something new. My strategy in combining ideas has always been a method of finding fuel to create. Mixing my ideas doesn’t just supply me with unlimited possible outcomes, it also gives me confidence that I’m not rehashing stuff that’s been done a million times, and it reignites my interest in my own work because of the strange directions I never expected it to take me.

I think a lot of writers already use this strategy, consciously or not. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan tells multiple stories from multiple perspectives, each with different unique concepts. One chapter is written using exclusively power point slides. Another one never introduces a character without soon jumping forward in time to explain what happened in their future. Another chapter is told in second person, which is pretty unique on its own these days.

A similar novel by Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination, doesn’t simply tell the sad stories of various American lives, but it also envisions a world where physical injuries emit visible light—and it features a child who can feel the emotions of inanimate objects—and it’s got the clever concept of moving from character to character only when one narrator passes off a journal of love notes to the next. That’s all brilliant if you ask me. I challenge you to find another book that’s even remotely similar to that; and it is, essentially a concoction of many combined ideas to make a solid whole.

Combining ideas is effective for other forms of art as well. I would never claim to be a skilled musician, but I did release an experimental music album last year that took full advantage of this idea-combination approach. I wanted to write a series of songs that told fictional stories about love and adventure, but I also wanted to create an entire album of through-composed songs (songs that don’t repeat or use the standard verse-chorus structure). But that wasn’t enough for me. I also decided I wanted to write an entire album of prequel and sequel songs. Groups of songs that go together back to back like partners. One track tells the first half of the story, the track next to it provides the conclusion. And that goes on for the whole album. The finished product may or may not be enjoyable to mainstream ears, but I’m satisfied with the freshness of the concept—a combination of three ideas.

Keep in mind, this whole “combining good ideas” thing is just a thought I’ve had bouncing around in my head for awhile. This blog is sort of my opportunity to spill the thought onto a page and see if it sticks, either for myself or other people. I haven’t thoroughly tested it yet, or proven whether or not it can be done effectively without turning a good idea into a complicated mess of unconnected things. But I do think it can be applied, at least in moderation, to a lot of mediums. Visual art, non-fiction, teaching, dancing, film, you name it. Don’t just paint a picture of an orange, mix orange zest into the paint! Okay, that might be a silly idea, but you get the gist.

The bottom line is this. Chances are, if you’ve got an idea, somebody’s done it. But if you’ve got a handful of ideas, chances are nobody’s done them all at once.

The Importance of Routine

Being a writer is more than hard work: it’s a job. If you’ve never considered writing to be a “real job,” please disabuse yourself of this notion at the door (i.e. right here). The stigma with any job is that, by definition, it’s something you probably either dislike or, at best, tolerate with the only sense of satisfaction mainly coming every other week when you see your paystub. This perception, in fact, is not all together incorrect for a significant number of people. However, there are certainly plenty of people who like their jobs, many of whom even enjoy the “hard work” aspect of said jobs.

Once upon a time, I romantically convinced myself that writing is just such a job, e.g. one that I would like and enjoy (while, yet, still being a job). This part is significant, so consider writing it down.

Writers tend to engage in all kinds of activities to avoid doing what they think of/dread as “real work,” or getting what they call “a real job,” but the pains through which they typically put themselves is far greater than what ultimately amounts to “taking the easy way out” and diving headfirst into a nine-to-five career. I’m using lots of quotes here but it’s only because where these definitions are concerned; your mileage may vary.

Oddly enough, many writers I’ve known have often looked upon nine-to-fives with longing, lachrymose eyes, almost wistful for a job that ends when the clock ticks one last time from 4:59 over to 5:00 P.M. It’s a magical time, this 5:00. It’s a transition into “the world outside.” When it’s officially 5:00, people are expected to leave their work at the office.

Incidentally, a writer’s work is rarely done by 5:00PM (unless s/he does her/his best writing at the crack of dawn, before their day-job, families and/or social commitments steal precious daylight away from them). Of course, there are a few select writers I know earn their crust from writing, but they are, sadly, a stark minority. Mostly, the rest of us teach, edit, freelance, consult, and/or etc. &c. to pay our bills. Even more writers I know have additional familial obligations as well (which, as they will almost certainly tell you, pay nothing at all, monetarily-speaking). As of December 21, 2013, I can also verify this.

Perhaps it’s a way to keep the dream of writing (for a living) alive that we take on so many odds and ends duties for bi-monthly remuneration — a way of staving off the harsh and likely brutal realization that the aforementioned dream may never come to pass. By working multiple jobs doing other things and writing “on the side,” we can still feel like writers — legitimate, “actual/real writers” — even if our tangible output is, by all accounts, diminutive, especially when inevitably compared with our dream output and/or the output of our more prolific writerly friends. We’re still reading and we’re still writing and that fact ultimately feels significant to us.

I submit that plenty writers have bagged it right after they uttered something as simple as, “I’m going to write a novel,” at that one unmemorable dinner party they attended (for example). They then went home after that dinner; they got to work, busted their asses, and wrote their novel. I mean that was it — that’s all they did. It’s not impossible, it’s just kind of . . . uncommon.

My apologies if this missive sounds bleak. Honestly. It’s not intended to be. Rather, it’s hopefully a realistic look at what life is like for writers who aren’t on The New York Times’ Bestseller List . . . for those who’ve published a scant few pieces, or those who haven’t published anything at all. This is not a call to put your pens down, to put your laptops away, and to give up the dream before it consumes and crushes you beneath lofty and unmet expectations. No, this is, in fact, a simple survival guide for a life that more than likely chose you rather than you/it.

Welcome to life as a writer: c. 2014.

Here it is in a nutshell: Do not underestimate the importance of the routine you will have no doubt developed while under the tutelage of your MFA writing mentors. Even though I’m writing this here in black and white, you may think: “It can’t happen to me” (i.e. you). You may think that you could never discard such a thoroughly-honed writing process that you and your mentors spent two years molding into such an exquisitely- and perfectly-balanced shape.

Again: Under no circumstances, whatsoever, should you change your writing routine. Ever. Unless you are dying. That’s a legitimate excuse. It’s about the only acceptable reason you should ever change your writing routine. I’m serious. Don’t change it!

Things begin to happen when you establish a routine (as you already know if you’re currently in a writing program or are just inherently disciplined). Once you practice sitting at the keyboard or notebook every day at the same time, parts of the writing process begin to automate. You don’t typically have to wonder what you’re going to write about or where you’re going to start. When you have a routine, this part will work itself out.

Additionally, the longer you stay away from the keys/pens, the harder it is to get back into any kind of rhythm or momentum you might’ve built. Trust me. During an MFA program, your mentors will prod you and demand work on regular, specific dates. You will pace yourself to meet these deadlines. You will feel good about your work and your output. In the cold harsh real worldpost-MFAyou will probably not have an official mentor, external prodding, deadlines (unless you’ve already locked in a sweet book deal with an agent and editor, et al.), and/or good feelings about your output. You can best that particular set of circumstances fairly easily just by sticking to your routine.

Joseph Michael Owens is the author of the ‘collectio[novella]‘ Shenanigans! and has written for [PANK], The Rumpus, Specter, HTML Giant, Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow & others. He is also the blog editor for both InDigest Magazine and The Lit Pub. You can also find him online at Joe lives in Omaha with four dogs, one wife, and a son.