This post originally appeared on November 25, 2009. Is it still plagiarism if I copy myself?
"Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright." -- Sam Seaborn, The West Wing Season 4, Episode 2 "20 Hours in America."
One of the banes of the writer's existence is the push to produce something that is fresh, new, and original. Some people actively try to write something truly original, and in fact purposely avoid anything even close to what they're attempting to compose.
I can't think of any artist (of any stripe) working in a vacuum that can produce something accessible to the general populace. Even the great epics of ancient history -- Gilgamesh, The Iliad, the creation of myths of Scandinavia and other nations to name a few -- came from rich oral traditions of these same stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey were even spoken for decades before someone wrote them down.
No worthwhile art, I feel, is "original" in the purest sense of the word, i.e. that nothing like it ever came before. Mozart, Stephen King, Archimedes of Syracuse, Leonardo da Vinci, and other artistic and scientific luminaries of the past how-ever-many thousand years of human history all had influences from somewhere. And yet we call the greatest among us "original thinkers."
Why is that?
Because they had the ability to synthesize what was available into something new. Leonardo da Vinci took concepts that already existed in the Renaissance and used them to design his inventions. Archimedes developed weapons of war that held back the Romans through experimentation and study. Stephen King's Dark Tower series was, by his own admission, based off a viewing of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. And Mozart composed some of his most famous music -- The Marriage of Figaro among that -- while at court in Vienna, where he was exposed to other composers.
This process, synthesizing our influences, is how we create original works. Everything we write is influenced by something else. Accept that, and you'll be better equipped to make a story that shines with the one original element you possess.