Undressing Originality In Writing

How a stylish sexagenarian led me to question whether I have anything to say that no one else can say better

Tutti Bennett

Ever heard of Tutti Bennett? Na, neither had I until I met her daughter Sonia (my friend’s kooky flatmate) last year. At a party, Sonia led me to her mum’s colourful Instagram page, and it was love at first sight. She might just be the coolest lady I’ve ever seen. And I once spotted the Queen in person, so that’s quite the statement.

Part of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style project, which you might know from his documentary of the same name, Tutti is an eccentric 60-something Aussie “rewriting beauty on her own terms.” It comes as little surprise Cohen chose to include the mature fashionista in Advanced Style — the project is, after all, devoted to “capturing the sartorial savvy of the senior set.” With a distinctive flair, Tutti is ageing disgracefully and has no reservations admitting she’s still figuring out life. I love it!

As a writer mainly focused on film, I’ve never covered style before. I desperately wanted a piece of the action though, which is why I put together a couple of different pitches showcasing Tutti and her equally quirky husband, Paul. Before I pressed send on these, I reached out to a buddy (a columnist over at Vogue UK) for advice on pitching to the top fashion publications. It’s not her real name, but we’ll call her Andrea — because The Devil Wears Prada.

I’m happy to confess that, while I knew it was a long shot, I was secretly hoping for more than a few tips. I thought there could be a chance Andrea would go all Inception on me, offering to implant my name in the commissioning editor’s mind. No such luck. In fact, sadly, I didn’t even come away with the industry-specific tips I’d also sought.

But Andrea did kindly throw me a couple of small scraps that have apparently served her well over the years:

“Find something you can do or say that no one else can do or say in quite the way you can. Be funny, interesting and original.”

There’s nothing in there I don’t already know. I always try (and likely fail) to inject humour into my work where appropriate — and sometimes where inappropriate too. And I always try to make sure I engage my readers (at least my 3 regulars) with relevant topics.

My content is also totally novel 100% of the time. Well, around 50% of the time. Ugh, fine, it’s never novel! Unlike Tutti, originality is my greatest Achilles heel. If I were to review my own articles like I review movies, I’d call it “derivative, at best.” I’m working on this, but I’m yet to knock out anything the world hasn’t seen before. And the agonizing sense of mediocrity that comes with my failure to do so plagues me every day. Sigh.

The most successful authors and bloggers recommend writing about what you know, but there’s a giant bloody snag with that pearl of wisdom: what I know, most people know.

Even when I write about cinema, my speciality, inevitably a fellow critic manages to jump in there quicker than me with the same or similar observations, making it seem like I’m simply rehashing a rival’s intellect. Steven Allison: just that little bit late since 1984.

So, how am I supposed to achieve originality? How am I supposed to do or say anything that nobody else can do or say in quite the way I can (as Andrea suggests) when most other writers are able to do or say everything I can do or say in exactly the same way I can — or even better?

At the end of the day, I’m a white, middle-class man in his 30s. And who wants to hear from another white, middle-class man in his 30s? I’ll tell you who: other white, middle-class men in their 30s — a demographic into which I may fall but have zero interest in reaching.

While I’ve led a relatively easy and privileged life, I do boast a handful of attributes and experiences fewer guys in the above-noted demographic can lay claim to.

Above all else, I’m a proud member of the queer community, and I mention that a lot in my writing. But my voice as a gay male is hardly unique, and there’s isn’t much to report on this front. I came out of the closet from the chilly depths of Narnia and into the (mostly) warm embrace of family and friends. I don’t look or sound overtly gay, so I’ve never found myself in hot water for the way I walk or talk like others in the community. And to the disgust of my zanier queer pals (and no doubt Tutti too), my dress sense and hairstyles have always been pretty tepid.

There is one huge, life-changing experience I’m keen to share with the world at some point. I’ve been sitting on this corker since pre-covid days, unable to muster the courage to put it out there into the blogosphere or beyond. While even fewer guys in the aforementioned demographic can lay claim to this one, I’m still far from a special case. I’d drop some stats in here, but anyone with a deerstalker and magnifying glass (perhaps the cast of Don’t F**k With Cats) would suss it out in seconds — and I’m not quite ready to lay my soul bare yet.

When I am ready, the result will be raw and honest. I’m sure I’ll do the whole thing justice, giving it a treatment so irresistibly offbeat, the publications I worship like some sad literary zealot will descend into a fierce bidding war. Oh, how delusion can help a human get forty winks at night.

That same delusion had me believing I could convince some editor to buy my piece on a stylish sexagenarian first featured in the press yonks ago. So, I guess it doesn’t matter that I didn’t strike gold with Andrea, because there’s no advice known to man (and not just white, middle-class ones in their 30s) strong enough to make that fantasy translate to reality.

Until I grow a backbone, I’ll continue to spout the same old guff every other Tom, Dick and Harry has already spouted quicker — the big hack that I am. Hey, a little birdie tells me the Titanic just sank. Do you think I can flog an exclusive?

London-based freelance journo (mainly film & TV), content writer & editor, ghostwriter, and blogger. Also currently studying to be a UX writer.

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