My teenage daughter Dolly was recently asked to complete a school assignment on what being original really meant. We talked about it together when she got back from school.
“Being individual,” she suggested to me, “I think means living in a colourful way, without caring how other people judge you, but doing things that really matter to you. Being original requires a certain amount of bravery, because it also means standing out.”
I liked this idea originality means standing out. We all know social media in general, and Instagram in general, can threaten to make clones of us all. It’s all too easy to spend an anxious morning clutching your phone, scrolling through other people’s lives, trying to find clues to the insoluble riddle of how to be happy. This is where Instagram can slide from mindless pleasure to danger, since the heavy edit we present on the grid as apparently everyday, thrown together images of “real life” isn’t real, but it’s often hard to see that.
Because originality and it’s twin, creativity, in real, messy, painful human existence means striving to live a life defined by the highest degree of personal integrity and truth we can muster. It’s easy to think originality lies in that peculiarly English trait known as eccentricity, because if you look at the talent of Vivienne Westwood, for example, or Isabella Blow, the colour, wit and vivacity of these women are stamped with an Englishness which is, undeniably, original and certainly creative. But the good news for the rest of us is originality isn’t confined exclusively to this kind of life. Because if the idea of continually living beyond or outside the status quo, as these bright artists have clearly done, seems either exhausting or completely unachievable, then there are other, quieter ways to be original, too.
Everyday originality might instead be sought in finding your way back to your origins, and in doing so, striving to live a life where you reach for your best potential. That might mean something as simple as finding creative release in joining a choir, enjoying the quiet pleasure of working with your hands by signing up to a life drawing lesson, or learning the language you’ve always wanted to master to express yourself in an entirely new way. Anything that involves simply clocking in for the daily grind is, in itself, a gentle act of originality.
Of course, most of us are constrained by the demands of that thing called everyday life: a school run to complete, a mortgage to pay, a boss to please, in-laws to entertain, a house to clean. But if you can quiet the chatter of responsibility, the endless to-do list of “ought” and “must”, and instead find space for experimentation and even play, you might find yourself crafting a life which feels more fulfilling and so more original.
If this prescription for originality seems too simple, then look, for a moment at a child near you: that might be your own child, sitting in the bath playing hypnotically with bubbles as you scroll through this article on your phone, or it might be the child in the café where you’re sitting now, who is experimenting with creating a harmony of sound with tea spoons as his mother chats to her friend. You only have to watch children’s immersion in their imaginary, created world to be reminded how original and truly creative spontaneous, experimental play can be. All too often, real life – the domestic 9-5, the mortgage payments, the tax return - gets in the way of this spontaneity, so there’s little wonder freshness and originality struggle to survive when life often feels exclusively routine.
A life lived with originality should feel the opposite of this, and be about making space for the things that matter to your heart and your soul, even if just for brief chinks of time within a week.
Being original also doesn’t mean being happy or perfect, all the time. This is a liberating thought. Instagram is a powerful drug that can make us feel happiness is a continuous, stable state of being which some lucky people seem to achieve all the time within those intoxicating little squares. True originality might thrive more readily living a life in which we are not watched or judged: the very antithesis of social media. But making time to reach for that in life is as crucial to replenishing our life force as drinking water, deep sleep, good food, love and companionship.
So the next time you are feeling swamped by the humdrum and mundane, by the domestic grind, take a little time to turn away from your duties and listen deeply to your instinct and your gut, to find space to do the things you really love, simply for the sake of doing them: thinking deeply about a book you’ve read, walking alone in the countryside, cooking something delicious, learning a language. If those things take you outside your so-called comfort zone, all the better. And remember your own version and definition of originality is yours alone: its no one else’s. As Dolly said, being original means standing out, but not putting too much energy into analysing how other people judge you for that stamp of difference. When we stop worrying about fitting into roles – the perfect partner, the contented mother, the successful employee, the domestic goddess - we get closer to finding the time to connect with who we really are. And that, in a quiet way, is a life lived with originality.
Clover Stroud is the author of The Wild Other: a memoir of love, adventure and how to be brave. She is writing a memoir of motherhood, due out in spring 2020 with Transworld. Follow her on Instagram at @clover.stroud