Sometimes it feels like there’s no point to writing unless I have a competely original idea. This is an impossibly high bar to clear—there aren’t no original thoughts left, but they are exceedingly rare. Often I’ll discover while researching that the core of my idea showed up in three thinkpieces within the last two weeks alone, or more likely that Ursula Franklin already figured it all out the year I was born. This mainly means that I’m not immune to the zeitgeist and that no one is immune to Ursula Franklin, but in the moment it always feels like my words are derivative and pointless.
I don’t really have a good answer for why I prize originality above all else, above craft and emotion and consistency, other than ego. Some small part of me still believes in my weakest moments that words are enough to change things, and I want to be the one to find those words.
Of course, that’s not how change actually happens, even with truly revolutionary ideas (and I certainly don’t pretend to have any of those). It’s not like there can be one perfectly constructed essay that will stir hearts and minds and everyone will applaud and think to themselves how cool and smart and pretty the author is before they sally forth to implement her policies. Ideas take careful stewardship and tireless repetition over decades or even centuries to catch on and spur people into action. If I want the things I believe in to flourish, then being one refrain in the chorus matters even if I didn’t compose the song.
Dominant western forms of storytelling don’t do a great job of portraying that kind of collective sensemaking. Most of the stories we’re told from a young age feature one person or a small group of people who made the difference, one act of bravery we’re meant to emulate. This narrative bias is a barrier to progressive social change: it’s easy to become demoralized when individual effort doesn’t have the seismic impact it does in our stories, much harder to keep faith in the immense and diffuse work required to organize and sustain a movement in the real world.
My preoccupation with originality is part of that same problem. Ultimately, I suspect I care about being original because I want to stand out from the crowd, which is the opposite of the politics I try to practice. I believe that individual snowflakes can add up to an avalanche, but that means I have to be okay with being one speck of crystallized ice amongst billions. At least it’ll still be pretty.