Why Should You Re-Invent the Wheel?

By: Robert Brook

By: Robert Brook


Did you ever hear of Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar?  It’s a story about a teenage boy who is stranded in a boat with a panther following a terrible shipwreck.  If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  “I saw a premise that I liked and I told my own story with it,” claimed Yann Martel, when asked about the obvious similarity between his book and Scliar’s (The Guardian).  In many ways, against the ideological underpinnings of modern art standards, this makes Martel look like a plagiarist.  But when compared, the two novels are actually quite different: Max and the Cats is all about Nazis, while Life of Pi deals mostly with religion.  To complicate matters, Martel says he didn’t even read Scliar’s book.  Considering all facts, can we still call Life of Pi an original?

For that matter, the fact that J.K. Rowling used many elements from Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 in the Harry Potter books blurs the line between theft and imitation.  After all, Ibbotson also wrote about an orphaned boy with magical abilities who lives with his terrible relatives—long before Rowling did.  H.G. Wells’ Outline of History is largely borrowed from Florence Deeks’ The Web of the Worlds’ Romance.  Shakespeare, Plato and countless others are all said to have done a little literary pilfering too.

Originality as a concept hasn’t been around for as long as you might think.  Prior to the 18th century, imitation was a crucial part of successful art.  Writers lifted whole lines and stanzas from poems and shamelessly used the same ideas.  It was only later that people started getting touchy about it—right around the time that artistic “genius” became important.  I could be alarmed at these shocking revelations, but instead, I offer to you a case for imitation as part of the artistic process.

The truth is this: we are not writing in a vacuum.  So why pretend that great stories, voices and characters haven’t happened before? Writing in the voice of an author that you love or writing a story based on a scenario that inspires you is another way to inform your own literary voice.  In part, I think that the honesty of writing real, original works comes from a deep understanding of captivating elements of literature and writing them the way you want them to be.  They say that art imitates life, but I would argue that in many ways, great art—great literature especially—imitates other great literature that has come before it.

To return to the question: why reinvent the wheel?  Because the wheel works.

What does originality mean to you?  As artists, can we imitate honestly, or does it come too close to theft?


Back to the Mailroom

By David Shankbone  (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By David Shankbone
(http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Confession: when I was in high school, I failed my drivers’ test six times.  There was the damned horse and buggy, plodding down the middle of the road that first time.  I sat there in the drivers’ seat, hands clenched to the wheel like bird claws.  There was a line of traffic all the way around the block, punching a Morse code of car-horn curses out into the air and the instructor, hidden behind enormous aviators, smiled and shook his head.  There was the time of the hypothetical pedestrian…the time of the wrong lanes…the time I ran over the curb or the time I was so nervous that I forgot to look in the mirrors for the whole trip.  I’ve been thinking a lot about those slow, defeated trips home from the drivers’ test.  Each time I knew that if I didn’t pass soon, I would have to start over again.

The other day, after a particularly frustrating experience of rejection, I started to think.  (Actually, if I’m being honest, I ate some cheesecake and watched some 30 Rock re-runs, because this is the all-time best remedy for disappointment. But saying “I started to think” just sounds way more avant-garde artiste…or something.)  And you know what?  It was totally productive, because I had an epiphany and it’s all because of Jack Donaghy and his awesomeness.  No, really, I mean it.  And not just because I have a crush on Alec Baldwin.  It just so happens that in this episode, Jack loses his position as CEO, but he climbs his way back to the top by getting a job in the mailroom.

Okay, bear with me.  This all makes sense, I swear.

For some reason, it got me thinking about my novel.  No, really, this time I actually was thinking and not ogling Alec Baldwin.  I’m rewriting this novel for the third time.  Why?  Because it just didn’t feel quite right the last time.  Maybe I’m a tad insane (aren’t we all?), but when I write another draft, I don’t like to cut and paste or edit what I already have.  I read each chapter and then type it out in a new document or write it again in a notebook without looking at it.  For some reason, the act of starting fresh makes all the important pieces stand out in my mind.  Aspects of the novel that I forget just fall away, because they weren’t really that important to the story anyway.

I guess you could say the blank page is my mailroom.  Sure, it’s not quite where I want to be.  Most of the time, it’s dark and filled with grumbling and a lot of papers everywhere.  But the thing is, I know that this is where I need to be.  After all, I did eventually pass my driving test.  (If this terrifies you more than comforts you, this is totally understandable). But it stands to reason that if someone who had to start over so many times can still succeed, we are all capable of our aspirations.  So make peace with the mailroom, because it’s only the first stop on the way to the top.

Have you ever gone back to the mailroom?

Amateur Hair Cutting and Other Bad Decisions

One balmy evening many years ago, my husband was writing a paper.  It was late and the deadline was fast approaching.  His dorm room, piled high with assorted laundry and schoolbooks was feeling more like a dirty sauna than a place to be responsible and finish homework.  As he stared at the blank, jeering white page of his word document, an idea began to form in his overheated mind.  It was more of a question, really.

What if?

On one precarious pile of textbooks sat our friend’s electric clippers.  When my husband tells this story, he claims that the room must have been one hundred degrees; that his entire head was sweating.

Another question came to mind, then.  Just how hard was it to cut hair anyway?

He reasoned that if he just shaved off the sides of his long, shaggy hair, the sweating would stop.  So he did it.  He shaved them off.  And he knew that he had made a mistake.

Bad choices.  It’s not something we like to talk about.  Or if we do, they take on a light-hearted “it’s funny now” kind of tone.  I could tell you about any number of bad decisions that I have made—befriending a rabid cat, moving to New Zealand without any lined up job or accommodation…deciding to go out for a late night walk in London, England by myself…bad choices are woven into the fabric of all of the best narratives that I tell.

But the thing is—the thing that makes bad choices so damn good to tell and re-tell in our own personal narratives—is that they make for some interesting stories.

When I think about all of my favourite books it always involves the hero or heroine making a cringe-worthy decision.  If Harry had never snuck out of his dorm room, perhaps J.K. Rowling’s brilliant series of Harry Potter books would not have been so exciting to read.  If Katniss had played it safe and let her sister go to The Hunger Games after all it would likely be a boring and succinct story.

I guess what I’m saying is this: bad decisions make good fiction.

Note: because my husband has destroyed all photographic evidence of his terrible hair cut, I present to you an image of a shaved poodle.  From what I can remember, it looks about the same anyway.

By: Template 911

By: Template 911