Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Genius Question

Recently, on Ali's blog, she posted a question about what to do when you realize that something you've written/are writing has been done before...and by people who are probably better than you.

I have come to the conclusion that you should go ahead and write it anyway. But only if you are aware of what has been written before (hence, as writers, you should read...because you may find your 'original' ideas are not so much...). Then put your unique spin on it.

I feel this way because I think that there are two different types of genius.

The first is the innovator...the one who seemingly creates something new and fresh. I say 'seemingly' because everything is a built, at least in part, on stuff that has come before. Literary innovators, to me, include the following:
1. William Wordsworth: created a new form and school of poetry with his buddy Coleridge. The idea was to recreate an experience 'in tranquility' and use forms to reflect/expand upon that. Basically, it's the first lead-in to free verse poetry...though he only used verse...but he used it for a different purpose. Hence, originality.
2. Dante: Took religion to a whole new level...or depth, I should say. Opened up the possibility of creating a new kind of view of religion (yeah, the idea of ain't in the Bible...that's Dante).
3. Tolkien/Lewis: Created completely other worlds. The first real escapades into the fantasy realm (Wells and Verne arguably the original geniuses of Sci Fi).

The second type of genius I consider "The Finisher"--where the original concepts (like the ones above) are taken by a talent and finished so completely that it's difficult for others to follow up. For example:
1. Walt Whitman/Emily Dickinson/T.S. Eliot--finishers of what Wordsworth started. No one after them has really touched their level of expertise. A lot of contemporary poetry is just cheap imitations...they can't top these particular three (though arguable Frost and William Carlos Williams could).
2. Milton: Basically finished Dante's work. Name another person who 1. wrote a eulogy after him and 2. wrote another religious interpretation anything like Paradise Lost. Yep, he's responsible for the apple idea.
3. Tough to say who has 'finished' Tolkien and Lewis because they are so new. Generally I would think that it takes decades for inovations to percolate among the generations. But Rowling is a fair-game kinda finisher. Hard to top Harry Potter. However, because this particualar genre is so new, she could be counted among the innovators...and a strong one at that. Only time will tell.

Based on this, I don't think a writer should be shaken by the idea that a writer has 'done it before'. You never know if your take on an old idea will be the definitive take. So I say go for it. Just read what's there and put your own spin on it.

Thoughts? Opinions? Am I way off base? (Naaahhhh)


  1. The only genius you didn't mention are the ones who'll come up with things no one has thought of yet. I think it helps to look at similar ideas so that you can make sure yours isn't too similar, and also improve on the weaknesses of the other person's idea. Also, you'll know who to accuse of stealing your idea.

  2. Yeah, but that's because, ha!, I couldn't think of anyone who had done anything flat-out new. I mean, maybe the dude (dudette?) who wrote Gilgamesh...? But, we don't know if he stole that idea from some traveling band of Neanderthal minstrels.

    Yep, you gotta know who to accuse of stealing your ideas...

  3. I once heard that the stories that really resonate are the ones that follow the heros journey (a la Joseph Campbell). There can be infinate twists to the story but it's basically 1) A calling 2) A journey 3) A return home bringing something new. Or that's roughly it, especially considering the journey doesn't have to be a physical one. So, how could any story be totally new? The human condition has always been basically the same, taken from far enough away. I don't want to seek perpetually after originality then just get the effect of trying too hard. Just allowing your personal uniqueness out into your stories is enough.


Fellow thieves! Please feel free to let me know what you've taken from this post - or share pertinent information that you don't mind me stealing.