Why do you want to be original? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it might do you some good to answer it.
We appreciate and admire originality when we see it in other writers. One reason to be original, then, is to be appreciated and admired. But that’s not an especially good or sustainable reason. You’ll never know whether you’ve been original enough…or, for that matter, whether you’ve been appreciated and admired enough.
A less self-centric, more reader-centric approach will be helpful here. Why do you as a reader appreciate original writing when you see it? I think it’s because you feel that the writer has given you something that you couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten for yourself.
When you’re the one trying to be original, originality feels like a moving target. Most of us don’t feel very original most of the time. And sometimes when we do feel that we’re being original, we aren’t as original as we think. But the reader’s experience doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the writer’s feelings. You’re better off not thinking about your own originality one way or another. Think instead about how you can give your reader something she can’t get for herself.
Perhaps you think that giving the reader something she can’t get for herself is just as daunting a task as being original. I don’t think it is. You know a lot of things your reader doesn’t know (what your grandmother’s house smelled like, for instance, or where your junior high math teacher snuck off to smoke cigarettes, or how the owls in your yard call to one another after dark). You have taken the time to think through things your reader hasn’t thought through. You are interested in things that your reader doesn’t yet know to be interesting.
The particular combination of things you know and understand is unique. Nobody has seen exactly what you have seen. And even if they had, they wouldn’t have your particular perspective on those things. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “What one sees is given by circumstances and by the nature of one’s particular kind of perception.” If you can just give an account of what you have actually seen in the world, originality will take care of itself.
We tend to think of originality as something that happens between a writer’s ears, as if truly original writers have minds that can do things that most of our minds can’t. It’s true enough that different people have different gifts. But leaving aside the originality between your ears, your experience is original. If you give an account of what you have seen with your own eyes, if you tell the truth the best you can–if you resist the temptation to package up your experience according to familiar formulae, to tell what you wish you had seen or what you thought you should have seen (or what you think a more original writer would have seen), you have an excellent chance of giving the reader something she couldn’t have gotten for herself.