Every story has already been told. Once you've read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had." -- Anna Quindlen, Commencement Speech; Mount Holyoke College, May 23, 1999
I suppose I could just post that tidbit above from Anna Quindlen and let it just...be. After all, it says pretty much what I'm thinking in that proverbial little nutshell.
But...nah. You know me. I must expound.
I'm reading a book right now. I won't mention the title. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that I'm thoroughly enjoying the book, devouring it, already wishing there was a sequel when I'm only at fifty percent through the damn thing. It's that good. It's haunting, sensual, beautifully, beautifully written. One of the best I've read.
Just so happens, when I was going to list it on a popular review forum, I noticed an already-existing review for the book.
It was so pitifully sad to me that the reader had tried so hard---desperately hard---to pinpoint and list every tiny element of the book that reminded them of a particular movie. I mean, this review rambled on and on, listing chronologically every similarity between the book and the film.
What I found kind of funny was that those elements were pretty much present in almost any novel of this genre. Right off the top of my noggin, I could commence to listing books I have read and loved which contained each of those points which seemed to really rile up this reader.
Originality. Is there such a thing? Is there really an idea out there in the literary universe that has not been conceived already? You know, if you think about it: have you read every book in existence so that you really know that any idea you hatch has not already been conjured by some other author before you? Many authors before you, maybe?
My own personal example?
Long, long before I was published, I'd fashioned this character. Oh, he was so unique. There was no one like him. I'd patterned him after my favorite Italian actor, Alessandro Gassman. He was a gangster. Elegant. Dark hair, dark eyes, exotically handsome, swarthy, very Mediterranean. I even imagined his clothes. An elegant, expensive dove gray suit and a hat.
Alessandro Gassman (right)
Oh...and get this. My character had a deformed arm. Aha! Now that, my dear ones, was the unique feature to distinguish my very, very original character from any others. No one could possibly match him. He was just too much a perfect concoction of style, grace, power and the quintessential touch of vulnerability.
And, knowing me and my passion for period stories, my setting was the city. 1930's. Could it get any more one-of-a-kind that this, I ask?
One afternoon, during the writing of my perfectly original character's story, I just happened to rent a film. It was right up my alley. Some sort of gangster family yarn which took place in the 1930's. And in this film was one of my favorite film stars, Benecio Del Toro. And he played a gangster. Yummmmy.
When Del Toro stepped onto the scene, I was deliciously surprised to see he was elegant, the perfect Rico Suave gangster, just like in my imagination, just like in my story. Oh, yes. Beaming, I thought, how cool is this?
His introductory scene was one which he strolled down the busy city sidewalk. Oh, yes, that is my man. And---get this---the character wore, just like in my original, never-breathed-a-word-to-anyone-about-it image, a lovely dove gray overcoat. He wore the hat, the whole nine yards.
Benecio Del Toro, 'The Funeral'
So surreal. Here is my character, flesh-and-blood. The exact time period, the exact setting, the clothes, everything. How delicious was it that this script writer or film producer just happened to have the same original idea as me? Priceless.
No. It could not be. It simply could not be.
The damn character in the damn movie had a deformed arm. Ayyyy! What on earth, what in the universe, were the odds of that?
And get this. I had never seen this movie prior to renting it. I had never even heard of it. I never knew it existed. Have I emphasized enough that I'd never seen this motion picture?
So, tell me. Do you see what I'm saying?
I scrapped my story. Well, I scrapped the deformed arm anyway. All I needed was a reader to have seen the film and read my book and announced to the world that I was a copy cat, right down to the character's handicap.
But, do you know what? The truth? It would not have been true. It would have been a beautiful coincidence.
Because writing is chock full of beautiful coincidences.
Writing is also chock full of coincidences that aren't accidental. Writing is loaded with ideas that were inspired by others' ideas. No, not plagiarism. Far from it. But earnest, simple, exquisite inspiration.
So what's the big deal if one story has some of the same elements as another? Okay, okay, if it's copied word for word and nothing changes but the characters' names and other key ingredients? That might not even be plagiarism, but it is---for the most part---uninspired and lazy. But, even then, believe it or not, a story can still seem like another and still not have been a deliberate copying.
I mean, if you figure that there are---what?---enough books to circle the earth about ten million times, wouldn't it be kind of hard to not end up with some similar renditions?
No, no, no. I'm not condoning running out and duplicating stories you like and making them into your own. If you are that devoid of ambition and personal voice, then don't write at all.
But a writer can't sit around, constantly biting their nails, worrying that there is going to be a story out there like their own.
Jim Jarmusch said, Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to. --- MovieMaker Magazine #53 - Winter, January 22, 2004
And that's what I'm saying.
Readers, please, please, please. Do yourself a favor and don't let an obsession on where a book got its roots destroy what could be a wonderful, satisfying reading experience for yourself. What difference does it make where or how an idea was born?
Try, if you can, to enjoy an author's unique voice in the telling of their stories.
And stop and think. What makes you search out book after book of a certain genre? Yes. That. The familiarity of it. A theme you embraced and sought out, to read more and more of it.
Enjoy books. Don't massacre a beautiful voice, a beautiful idea, a beautiful trip to another world by torturing yourself with where the author dreamed it up.
Appreciate that they, just like you, love something dearly and that they---just like authors before them and authors before them---love to tell it in their own voice.
Because they love it. That is a lovely thing.