Original, Derivative, and Communal

In response to Mr. Pond, Once Upon a What

The rule "Write what you know" came under discussion last week, and Mr. Pond did just that: a short tale about a writer trying to write, which had me laughing out loud.

We agreed, of course, that the old adage refers to emotional and spiritual knowledge, not necessarily to literal fact. (For those of us who write fantasy, this is most definitely a good thing.) Then Mr. Pond took the concept a step further:
"If we write, as Jenna suggests, ‘in search of meaning,’ then ultimately I believe we search not just to know but to be known. What we know, then, is the move from being unknown to being known. The restless, longing reach from I to Thou, and the realization that the Thou has reached down already."
To know and be known, to love and to belong--these are some of the most basic human desires, common to anyone with anything like normal empathy. Mr. Pond again:
"...the place of passion in the human heart looks, I think, much the same. In story, in telling a tale, we enter into knowing not just our own hearts, but the hearts of others. Not just our own era, but the eras of others. In writing a tale, we speak and we listen, entering the conversation and the singing and the tales of ages, spoken again each moment."
Then he quotes Joivre, one of the regulars from conversations at The Hog's Head:
"Everything anyone has ever written is an accumulation of what one has read... Everything that has been composed contains the language of what has been composed before it.... Sure, we all try to have our own voice, unique and special, but there is a common bond between us all, a shared history–that is passed down from one writer to the next."
...and something about that combination of thoughts reminded me of another axiomatic pet peeve of mine, which reads like this:

Be original.

It's all very well to command the creative sort to Do Something Different, but I think the Teacher was right when he said "There is nothing new under the sun." Today's great act of rebellion is tomorrow's everybody's doing it, and after all that, it was probably done every day in ancient Rome. Just how different can we get, honestly?

There are blog-posts and sites dedicated to things considered overdone in fantasy novels. "Enough of the Chosen Ones," someone usually gripes. "Ditto the poor children becoming heroes, riding on horses, going on quests, destroying Dark Lords and fighting with swords." Oh, really? That just ruled out most of the things that make a good fantasy. An underdog character, chosen for some impossible task that must be accomplished to rid the world of an over-powerful ultimate evil? Frodo, meet Harry and the Pevensies. And while some may say it should have stopped with the Tolkien/Lewis/Rowling triad of genius, if I'm judging Katniss Everdeen correctly, she's here to prove that what worked before can work again.

(Ooh, but don't spoil me on The Hunger Games. I'm halfway through the first book right now--late, as usual, to the blockbuster party.)

A story that works by trope is forever in danger of being called derivative. Someone, somewhere once called Rowling derivative, if I remember rightly. I hope they were smart enough not to do it again, but perhaps the word is somewhat (and more kindly) applicable if we consider that Rowling drew from the same deck the rest of us are playing with.

Writing is a communal pursuit. The traditions and tropes, ideas and archetypes of literature are shared associations. They allow us to know ourselves, our peers, ancestors and descendants, and be known by those who hear or read our stories. They carry meaning. And the communal aspect of storytelling involves the reader as well as the writer: two people, each bringing their own perspective to a common experience. Traditions open communication, making things easier for both parties.

There is such a thing as being too original--getting so unique that you cannot be understood (at least, not without elite knowledge.) This is much of my problem with certain types of art, music and literature. Chaos, formlessness, filth and despair may have a sophisticated rationale for their creation and display, but ultimately they just look like chaos, formlessness, filth and despair. Does that really help anyone? Is it better to educate people into a depressive so-called realism, disconnected from each other and from meaning, or into hope?

There is room enough in the arts' traditions for creativity, for continuous innovation. "A new take on an old idea," some publishing professionals will suggest. Now there's a recommendation I can go for.


  1. Jenna,

    I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know that I found your blog. I have yet to read much but I love it so far. Talk to you soon.


  2. You sound like you've been reading The Pilgrim's Regress. Or at least like you should be reading it.

    Interesting thoughts, wonderful tension here. I'd write my response right now, except I'm exhausted, so I won't. That's why there's a tomorrow...

  3. So glad you came by, Sarah! I like your blog too. :)

    Mr. Pond, I've never read that. Maybe we have a copy?... hmmm... Yes, we do. I'll have to read it.

    Just read your new installment and will comment soon. I liked it a lot.


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