“Fear is the mind-killer,” says Frank Herbert in Dune, one of those masterpiece classics that has become so ubiquitous, it’s made its way into the psyches of all of us nerds who have ever so much as cracked a high school library copy of the tome, with its ant-like rows of script, or braved the strange gothic desert in David Lynch’s cinematic take.
But that’s the thing about classics. They stick. They weave their way into the fiber of our collective consciousnesses—even if that “collection” is you and a couple of choice friends who also thought Charlie’s Angels (2000) was the best movie ever in 6th grade. (“Masterpiece,” and “classic” it turns out, are actually highly subjective terms, entirely dependent on audience, and not necessarily on college professors—in this case, an audience eleven-year-old girls.)
No matter who is deciding, you have your masterpieces, and I have mine. And, more often than not, we share them together, if we don’t realize it or mean to, because that’s how classics work. They make up the great mine we delve for all our tropes—the patterns, cliches, and tools from which we craft our own creative work.
“Masterpiece,” is also a high standard to put on any burgeoning creator, be they a hobbyist or professional. Even if we don’t kid ourselves, even if we say, “Maybe I won’t make a masterpiece, but maybe I can make something just short,” our own inspirations set a looming standard. To make anything like a masterpiece, to do what any of the Greats did, whomever they may be to you, is to make something new. Something original. To take what has come before—and then to supersede it.
But to make something truly original, we as creators must somehow extract ourselves from those stories which have already permeated our being. No easy task. That’s scary. And fear is the… well, you know what it is.
Creativity and fear go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. To create, to show up in a space, be it submitting a story for publication or introducing your character in a D&D campaign, is to be vulnerable. It is to open ourselves up to rejection and ridicule, either from our friends and peers, or from the authorities and gatekeepers in our field. For those who trust their livelihoods or identities into their creative work, the stakes are even higher.
For most of us, that fear turns into paralysis. And paralysis is the death knell of a creative life. To create is to move—it is to tell, to show, to share. We must be doing to call ourselves Writer, Actor, Painter, Designer, Player. Fear is our paralysis, and paralysis is our kryptonite, for both ourselves and those we collaborate with.
In fact, fear is so common (every creator is scared shitless, don’t worry, you’re in good company) that there are countless ways to address it—from the fear of rejection, to the fear of judgement, to the fear of failure. And, in many ways, those fears are inevitable. They are necessary hurdles on the journey to create and to share, but they are ultimately subjects for a different post.
Here, I want to address one fear I don’t believe is necessary: the fear of doing what has been done before and of doing it badly. Of dealing only in tropes and cliches. The fear of creating only pale copies of the masterpieces that have permeated our collective psyche, made all the more mammoth by the fun-house mirrors of our minds, twisting and warping the stories we love through the rose-colored lenses of nostalgia and admiration.
The fear, in essence, of being unoriginal.
The standard advice to the horrible thought that you might be a hack no matter how hard you try is this: nothing is original, anyway. It’s all made up of composite parts. Just do your best with what you’ve got, as it’s all any creator can do. While this isn’t bad advice, I don’t quite think it’s the pivot that sticks.
The pressure to be original is too strong. We often seek, sometimes without meaning to, just the right combination of composite parts to affect novelty. Or we push our characters to greater and greater physical and emotional extremes, or send our plots twisting into corkscrews in the never-ending quest to spark shock-and-awe into what we imagine to be the most desensitized of audiences. And while this tactic isn’t wrong, either, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
What I want to suggest instead is an even more potent tonic for fear, and it has two parts, 1) Facing the fear head on, and 2) Trust.
First, try an exercise where you don’t simply attempt to outsmart the component tropes in your respective medium—especially Sci-Fi and Fantasy. In the effort to create something “new” out of genres defined by their tropes (or to supersede those tropes altogether) storytelling can become like a prestige act, with the creator hiding their work behind smokescreen after smokescreen, relying on increasingly crafty puzzles and tricks to invoke that elusive feeling of magic and discovery in the audience.
I invite you to instead consciously drop the prestige. Completely. This can be tough to do if you stay within your medium, though it’s certainly possible. So if you usually write original fantasy fiction, try fanfiction. Or try a genre you usually stay away from, one that is confined and well-mapped by its tropes: Urban Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, Hard-boiled Detective, or Steampunk. Try DMing a tabletop game, and actually stick to the book (which is, incidentally, what I am doing and served as the inspiration for this post).
In other words, get down and dirty with unoriginality. Really revel in it. Intentionally use it, or abuse it, as this exercise may feel like at first. Even if the stories you create are not something you end up taking directly into your professional/serious/main work, you’re cultivating an invaluable skill: creating without the fear of unoriginality. If you’ve already thrown all your cards in, what’s left to lose?
The resulting feeling can be liberating, even joyful. And incredibly creative. When you drop the prestige, you can focus on the parts of a story that excite the ephemeral tingle that has drawn you to every masterpiece you love, the thing that’s hard to quantify or describe: emotion, character, wonder, adventure, wisdom, truth, love—the adamantium core of fiction that words can’t do justice to, and which could never be adequately measured in a dust jacket summary, Wiki, or IMDB page.
Which leads me to number two: Trust.
Originality is not about clever twists, characters pushed to their brink, or a new and inventive applications of tropes. On some level, we all know this, and yet it’s tempting to do it anyway, because masterpieces so are elusive, and true originality is hard to pin down. So instead, I suggest you trust. Because if fear is the mind-killer, trust is its liberator.
Trust that whatever components you create with will be transformed through the alchemy of your being into something real. Something unique. Just as your masterpieces were transformed by contact with your consciousness on their way in, so are your stories on their way back out. When you trust—yourself, your story, your passions, your collaborators, your audience—you have the opportunity to make something truly authentic. And it’s authenticity, not a clever prestige, that is at the root of all originality.
To create authentically, you must be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable, you cannot fear. Instead, you must face you fear, let it pass over the through you, until it has gone, and only you remain. At least, I’m certain Frank Herbert said something like that.