Staying Fresh: Imitation vs. Innovation


Last Sunday my husband and I watched the Super Bowl. My husband’s the football fan. I just happened to be reading a book on the love seat in the same room as the television. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t confess to peeking at the commercials. The one with the daughter cracking up while her father explains the metal wand in his hand is a dipstick made me chuckle. I cringed when the trailers for the new Avengers and Toy Story movies popped up, though. Maybe this grumpy gal is tired of the same story line being rehashed to death so another line of action figures can be merchandised. Just saying.

One has to wonder where originality and innovation have gone. Have they disappeared? I certainly hope not. Author, journalist, and opinion columnist Anna Quindlen gave a commencement speech to the graduates of Mount Holyoke College back in 1999. This is what she had to say:

“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound & The Fury, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Wrinkle in Time, you understand 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 history of time has ever had.”

And then you have Christopher Booker in his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, reaffirm this by suggesting all the stories written since the dawn of civilization fall into one of the following archetypes:

1. Overcoming the Monster: The hero overcomes the bad guy (monster.)

2. Rags to Riches: Your basic Cinderella story.

3. The Quest: The protagonist sets out on a mission. Think Lord of the Rings.

4. Voyage & Return: Adventure story where the character has a life-changing experience and returns home to tell the tale.

5. Comedy: Everything that could go wrong will go wrong, but everything comes full-circle by the end.

6. Tragedy: Always an unhappy ending. The main character pays heavily as the result of his/her flaws.

7. Rebirth: A story of self-discovery where the character emerges transformed.

As writers we’re often encouraged to read and/or imitate writers who have come before us so one can assimilate how good writing ought to look and sound. And yes, feel. Even famous writers, like Hunter S. Thompson, have gone through this exercise. It’s said Thompson retyped not only The Great Gatsby; but also, Farewell to Arms so he could become one with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The danger, you ask? When your beta-reader returns your piece and says, “Hey, you know, this piece reminds me a lot of [insert favorite writer/story here].”

It’s true. Meaningful stories aren’t always born out of originality. Some readers prefer the familiar because it makes them feel more rooted or connected. Yet, we must not forget our role as writer is also to provide the bridge which leads the reader on a journey to someplace he/she could never imagine unless the story is written.

Take risks. Slow down. Be a keen observer. Break the rules. Seek out the extraordinary. Experiment. Don’t be afraid to embrace your own unique voice. The world is waiting to hear what you have to say.

Photo Credit: Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

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