Don't wait to be original

Jan 29, 2021

As a creative person, I often feel a lot of pressure (most of it self-inflicted) to make my work totally original.

Immersed in the NYC new music scene as I was for three years before the shutdown, I experienced so much incredible, genius, idiosyncratic work by artists who seemed to have discovered their thing. Some strong examples come to mind: Paul Pinto, Charmaine Lee, Jennifer Walshe, Helga Davis, Dave Malloy, Erin Gee.

Each of these artists makes work that is so original, so unique, and so utterly them that it’s impossible to hear one of their pieces and not know that it’s theirs. It’s not that it all sounds the same, but there’s still the idiosyncratic quality, the identifying marker, that gives it away as a Paul Pinto Original™️ (or what have you).

As artists, we can get so caught up in the search for originality. We might also call it “authenticity.” The thinking goes something like: Unless I find my thing, right now, then what business do I have putting my work out into the world? People will say I’ve copied someone else’s work, that I’m a hack, that I have nothing unique to contribute.

This thinking provides a convenient and seemingly noble place to hide. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that we have nothing of value to contribute, and that we are actually doing a service to the world by keeping that lack of originality to ourselves. I’ve used that hiding place for ages. “Until you have something original to say, step aside and make way for those who do.”

The flaw in this logic lies in the fact that, unless we pour ourselves into the creation of unoriginal work at first, chances are we won’t find our idiosyncrasies. It’s in the creation of unoriginal work—yes, of copying other artists (to an extent, and without plagiarizing)—that we figure out how our voice differs from the rest. We learn how our work relates to the genre, and how it differs. Idiosyncrasy is born.

In our feverish search for originality, we actually significantly reduce our chances of ever finding it.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send us your blog post.

Nathaniel Sullivan

Nathaniel Sullivan is a freelance classical vocalist, theatre performer, and writer based in NYC. He shares his thoughts and experiences through performance and writing.