Why Creating Something ‘New’ Isn’t the Point

Dali's "The Persistence Of Memory."
Dali’s “The Persistence Of Memory.”

I’ve been sitting in on an art history class recently, specifically it’s a history of Modern Art, which, I was surprised to learn, began in the 18th century and ended in 1945. I hope that’s not something everyone else in the world but me has known for years, but like they say, whatever makes you humble…

Another big piece of Art knowledge that got laid on me from the guy teaching the class is the idea that everything has already been done. Nothing is new. All an artist can do is variations on what’s come before. So you don’t have to sweat it to come up with something ‘new.’ You can just get to work writing or painting or conceptualizing or shooting videos or making music, and not worry about being original. I mean did Robert Johnson worry about whether  the songs he sang were ‘new’? Muddy Waters? Junior Wells? T-Model Ford? I don’t think so. They just made the best music they could. The force of their personalities gives the music they made a unique quality, even if the words and 12 bar structure are the same old same old.

Recently I read a terrific novel by Paula Fox, “The God of Nightmares,” that was published in 1990, and in the intro I came across this quote:

It is a fact that, very broadly speaking and with some exceptions, there are only two structured models for novels: The status quo is established; someone arrives or something happens to shatter it. Thus Anna Karenina; thus Sula. Or – it’s converse – a character impelled by any number of forces from boredom to a crisis in a distant place, goes forth into the world and discovers complexities undreamed of at home; thus Tom Jones; thus Moby Dick. – Roselyn Brown, writer, poet, auther of Tender Mercies.

As a writer working on a second novel, it’s reassuring to know there are, big picture, only two plots. And every writer you can think of, from Homer to Elena Ferrante, are spinning out variations on those two plots. What a relief.

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