Reinventing the Wheel

Sometimes it’s good to lean into the tropes.

While we often strive to be creative, unique or original in our works, it’s inevitable that you’ll use well-established building blocks.

Let’s say you want to write an original song. Even if you try really really hard not to recycle musical concepts or lean too heavily into your influences, this just scratches the surface of how deep your foundations really go. You’re probably not inventing a new language with new phonemes for the lyrics. You’re probably not inventing new instruments to play the song on. You aren’t creating a new file type to store the digital version. And so on.

You’re using the tools that exist to create something new.

It would be silly of a critic to say that Frank Zappa wasn’t creative or inventive because he used existing instruments – how trite, right? Or to say that Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t innovative because his buildings were constructed out of wood and nails – jeez, derivative much? I mean, Vincent van Gogh just used paint! What a copycat!

Stylistic elements are just that – tools. I see a lot of creators go through a phase where they feel like they have to throw away literally everything that came before in order to be original, but that’s like saying you want to be a famous painter who will never use brushes, canvas or paint. Some people do try to do that! They make art by smashing watermelons onto taxicabs or something and while that has its place (I’m no art critic, but I don’t fundamentally believe there’s any such thing as ‘not art’), it isn’t a substitute for actual creativity.

In fact, some of the people who did reinvent a few wheels as part of their creative process did so by really understanding them – knowing the rules is important to effectively subverting them or making your own. (J.R.R. Tolkien comes to mind, having actually created a language as part of his fantasy saga.)

Sometimes you just lean into it, hard, like in Snow Crash where the main good guy is literally named “Hiro Protagonist.” There’s nothing wrong with it – these are all tools in your tool box. Know them, and build the thing you really want to build.

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