“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” ~ Pablo Picasso
A woman writes in a secluded room all day and submits her story to workshop the following day. The next week she is blasted for the unoriginality of her work. She ponders on how her work could have been unoriginal when it originated from her isolated thoughts.
I’m sure a similar scenario has happened to all of us at least once: we’ve been questioned about the originality of one of our pieces. It’s offensive; it hurts; yet there is some basis to that question. I’m going to briefly explore the origins of these thoughts then touch on how we can steal from others and make it our own.
Nothing Is Original
The New Testament. The Iliad and the Odyssey. Star Wars. The Passage. The Lord of the Rings. There has been a theory around for years that if every story were stripped to its bare plot, we would discover that there are only a few original storylines/plots (the current number is seven). If I strip down those aforementioned stories/epics, only the plot of the journey of a man would remain. However, adding the layers back to these stories allows the reader to open a book about Middle Earth and hobbits and say, “Wow, I’ve never read anything like this before.”
Think about the core of Hamlet and The Lion King. Although seemingly different, they are more alike once you get past the surface.
Bottom Line: Accept that the core of your story won’t be original. However, it’s up to you to create unique characters and situations so that when your audience reads your story it will feel brand new to them.
Remixing the Original (or Other Remixes)
“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you still from many, it’s research.” ~ Wilson Mizner
One of my favorite books that emulate this quote is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. She mentions the classics influencing her work. However, there are other works this book is reminiscent of: The Lottery, Lord of the Flies, and Gladiator. There are elements from each story that appear in The Hunger Games.
Bottom Line: If you see ideas from other works pushing their way into your work, evaluate it to see if your piece would benefit from this idea. If it can’t, chuck it. If it can, mold it into your own.
On the Micro Level
A novel is nothing without the words to build it. I’ve recently been fascinated by how many writers have been influenced by Ernest Hemingway. Two of my favorite: Joan Didion and Raymond Carver remarked on how they marvel at Ernest Hemingway’s sentences. Both of them have completely different styles, yet if you strip away the story and study each sentence, they have both adopted the idea of bare, telling sentences.
Bottom Line: Even Micro-Level art can be stolen. However, it’s the work on the individual’s craft that morphs the idea into its own style.
While the genesis of an idea may not be 100% unique, each unique experience lends to a different telling of that story. Embrace reading others’ works and explore the nuggets of a story that speak to you.
The key to it all: keep reading and keep writing!