Wednesday, November 25, 2009


"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.


P.S. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! (Or happy Wednesday/Thursday to all my international friends). Because of the holiday, I'm going to take the next two days off from posting, so this'll be my last offering for this week.


Davin Malasarn said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you too. I think it's basically impossible to not be influenced by others, no matter how much we try. Just the learning of language requires reading, which probably informs our voice. You're right that the key is synthesizing what you are aware of. Somehow, originality comes out of that. It's all so mysterious.

Rick Daley said...

Good writing needs the writer's perspective to influence it. While every letter has been written and every note played, you have the opportunity to be unique by stringing chains of them together, and a good writer will do so in a unique weave that represents his/her voice.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Wait. So you're telling me HATSHEPSUT isn't totally original?

*runs away screaming*

Okay, I'm back. I guess I knew that. I swiped themes from Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Job to write HATSHEPSUT. I'm all about tragedy. Although the ending felt too King Lear so I had to rewrite it.

Matthew Delman said...

Davin --

That's why you can, upon reading my stuff, probably point to at least a few of my influences. If a reader knew Tolstoy as well as you, then they'd probably see him in your work a little for the same reason.

Rick --

That's why the only unique element in the whole thing is you the author.

Stephanie --

That's why a site like can exist, because everyone borrows their themes from somewhere.

Shakespeare, the Greeks, and the Bible. You're just raking in the historical references, huh?

L. T. Host said...


Ok, now that I got that over with--

Um, yeah. Me? I borrow stuff. It bothers me on occasion but then I read posts like this and I'm like, yeah! I'm not original! And it's OKAY!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Yeah, you know, some light and happy themes. :) And in the next book I'm swiping directly from Herodotus. Hurray!

Joshua McCune said...

When I first wrote The Goblin Prince, I had the foolish thought, 'this is somewhat original.' Then my mother comes along and tells me she read a children's tale called 'The Goblin and The Princess' -- admittedly, it was written in 1873 (evidently I'm writing in the wrong millennium :)

Adam Heine said...

Nice post. I wasn't able to really write until I accepted that truth. Now I don't worry so much, so long as I'm on the 'influence' side of the influence-plagiarism continuum :-)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post!

So...if I write something cool about baseball, it's not original?
Bummer! ;-)

Love your site - I found my way over from Stephanie's Hatshepsut site. I was running away from Oedipus!

Anita Saxena said...

Hope you had a fab Thanksgiving!

I totally agree. Everything we write is influenced, to some degree, by external factors. Sometimes if I read something in third person or past tense I start writing that way (not good, since my WIP is first person present tense).
BTW I nominated you for the Superior Scribbler Award. Check it out here: