There are no new ideas, and that’s okay

Over the summer, I worked at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane. One day, I was straightening the “New Arrivals” shelf when I came across a write-up for a book that was alarmingly similar to one of my own short stories. The book was The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. A very abridged description of the book could go like this: A teenager struggles with family drama while at the same time all citizens on Earth must cope with the environmental impact of a gradual yet distinct change in the speed of the planet’s rotation. Now, a lot of people write about teens embroiled in family drama. That’s not surprising. It was the change in the speed of the Earth’s rotation bit that got me. Because honestly, when I came up with that concept for my own story, I thought it terribly clever, and terribly original. But there it was, my very clever and original idea, in someone else’s hardback novel.

There’s no rule that says each story has to be a unique, individual snowflake. In fact, in the world of creative writing, imitation is actively encouraged. Each final paper I wrote while in grad school at EWU included a creative, imitative piece in which we were asked to take techniques used by other authors and try them out in our own work. I still do this exercise sometimes when I’m stuck with something I’m working on – I’ll pick out a story of someone else’s that I enjoy and try to mirror its structure, just as a way to stretch out a little in a different direction.

But when we talk about imitation, we are usually talking about craft, not content. It seems to me that while craft is communal property, meant to be taught, explored, dissected, traded, content is seen as private property. I’ve never heard anyone admit they were writing a story and compare the narrative to an already existing piece of work. But then, as I’ve written before, I’m not one for talking about my writing at all. If someone asks what I’m working on, I’m much more likely to give answers about craft than give up details about what the story is about. Not because I’m afraid the person I’m talking to will take my ideas. That’s not really how writing works. But simply because creative content seems private, personal, and I don’t want to talk about it until I myself am settled and confident in what it’s going to be.

That said, imitation of content does happen all the time. There are stories that are seemingly constantly being retold by different writers. Like, you know, The Odyssey. Simply by virtue of living on the same planet and experiencing the same stuff, writers are bound to overlap in their ideas, images, narratives, etc. I don’t know if I really believe the statement I titled this post with. There probably are still plenty of new ideas, and always will be. But chances are, if you have a new idea, you’re going to have to share it with someone else.

For a long time, I’ve believed that the key is to go on pretending that your ideas are, in fact, original. I bought The Age of Miracles the other day. For a number of months though, I’d avoided it. I was curious, certainly, about how Walker had rendered her world, how the change in the Earth’s rotation played out for her characters in comparison to my own. But I also worried that whatever she wrote might somehow undermine (in my mind) what I had written and make me want to discard my story entirely. Fortunately for my piece of mind, by the time I became aware of Walker’s book, my own story had already been accepted for publication, and so felt like it was out of my hands, no longer at risk of being tampered with in reaction to what Walker wrote. Had this not been the case, I worry seeing the description on the book jacket of The Age of Miracles would have been the equivalent for me of having shared, prematurely, the content of the story with someone else – the exposure of something personal, and private to the light of day. I worry that had I still been working on the story, I would have stopped working on the story.

Still, I did not buy The Age of Miracles for almost six months. I know Walker’s story is not identical to my own (her teenage character is female, mine’s male; her teen finds love for the first time, mine is so introverted he hardly interacts with anyone except his own father; the rotation of her Earth slows down, mine speeds up). But for whatever reason, I wasn’t ready to read it. I wasn’t ready to admit my ideas could be shared, in fact, are constantly being shared. But now, for whatever reason, I am. I’ll start The Age of Miracles in the next day or two and I’m looking forward to it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve bumped up against images or scenes or even titles from my own stories already floating around out there in the world. It’s surprising every time, and, in some cases for reasons I mentioned above, upsetting, though I wish this wasn’t the case. Instead, what I’d like is to get to a place where, when I meet elements my own stories inside the work of others, I’m not alarmed, but rather, excited. Because even though creative content may feel private, it’s not. It’s shared regardless of whether we intend to share it. If nothing else, it’s a sign that at some point in time my mind went to the exact same place as another persons’. In the lonely world of creative writing, where most of us work in isolation and the vast majority of what we produce is, ultimately, read by no one, isn’t a common idea actually an intimate and wonderful thing to share?



  • Fitz says:

    I totally hear you on this. It was only after I’d started writing Amelia poems that I found out Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s first book was called The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart. (I’d only read her second book at that point and was in love.) I ordered it right away but I was afraid to read it because I thought she might have done everything I was trying to do and that it would stop me from writing any more Amelia poems because then I’d feel like I was copying her. Or I was afraid I would want to copy her if she’d done it better.
    But after I read the book, I figured out we were going at it from different angles and giving voice to different aspects of the Amelia story so it turned out ok. But I think it was still a risk, even though that might seem silly. I like that writers all return to the same weird ideas, but I still feel territorial when it’s also my weird idea. I think I’m most concerned with people thinking I’m “cheating” by doing something that’s already been done before.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    So good to read a post from you….loved all these ideas.
    I especially loved the last paragraph, though, where you talk about getting to a place of excitement and intimacy. Lovely. And totally agree (although have no idea if I’d ever be able to get there completely)

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