Thursday, November 10, 2016

Originality is Overrated

"Ms. K, I just don't know where to go with my story."

Victoria, one of my 7th grade students, said these words to me tentatively today during writing workshop. Over the past week, she had developed a realistic fiction story idea that involved an incident in a mall where a main character and her friends are trapped and must escape a potentially dangerous situation. As she reiterated her plot to me, I could tell that she wasn't in love with this story idea. And I told her as much.

 In years past, this might have caused this ELA teacher to clutch her heart in horror and despair over the "wasted time" planning a story that won't ever come to fruition.

Thankfully, nowadays, hearing these words actually excites me a little bit. Victoria clearly wants to care about her story, and she's okay admitting that she currently doesn't.

Maggie Kate, Victoria's writing partner, piped in at that point, eager to share her own writing struggles. Since I was still thinking over how to approach Victoria's predicament, I listened.

"Ms. K, I'm worried that my story isn't original enough."

I laughed when she said this. "Maggie Kate, every single story that exists has borrowed from another story."

 Both girls started chattering excitedly.

"Yeah! It's kind of like how there are lots of books where someone dies, and people have to deal with it or figure out why."

"Or there are tons of books about people who are trying to overcome a disability or difference, like Wonder or Holding Up the Universe."

I nodded my head, excited that they were picking up on what I meant.

"What's also cool is that sometimes, the stories you read or the movies you watch might inspire a cool story idea. And that's okay!"

I told them about how the movie Amelie had inspired my story's plot. I had used the basic trajectory of the movie as inspiration for my story about a girl with social anxiety who is desperate to connect with a guy she sees at her school.

"Your plot might not be 100% original. And that's okay. What makes it a true original work is that no one else will write it the way you will."

Both girls smiled. Their teacher had just given them permission to rip off another story and make it their own! I smiled, because I knew this was how real writers worked. Sneaky!

I knew that the next step in helping Victoria land on a story idea she would want to write was to get her thinking about some stories or movies that she loved. I asked her what she was thinking.

"Well, I really wanted to write a story about someone who can't remember anything, and someone else has to remind them of the past every day...kind of like The Notebook. I love that movie." 

Instead of immediately dismissing this idea as unoriginal (which would be very hypocritical, given how my story idea came about!), I kept listening.

Maggie Kate responded enthusiastically. "Oooh! What if you wrote a story about a girl who can't remember a guy, and he's in love with her?"

Victoria nodded, and she then segued into talking about 50 First Dates, which follows a similar "memory loss" narrative (Lucy has anterograde amnesia and cannot transfer short-term memories into her long-term memory, so Harry, a love interest, must work to remind her of who he is every day).

"Hmm. I think there might be a story inspired by these movies," I mused, thoughtfully.

Gracie and Claire, writing partners who had paused their work and were listening to our conversation, chimed in with some story ideas that Victoria might explore. The five of us imagined several versions of a new story that Victoria might tell: one where a girl suffers from some sort of memory loss, and the protagonist, a boy who falls for her, has to decide whether to pursue her or move on. As we continued talking, the story morphed several times--organically, as new ideas were added to the conversation.

At one point, I suggested a quick Google of amnesia so that Victoria could understand the difference between the two types of amnesia. Learning about retrograde amnesia inspired another potential story idea: a boy and a girl who have a strong relationship that is derailed after the girl suffers a head injury and cannot remember their past relationship.

Victoria quickly scribbled down our ideas as our conversation flowed. As I stood up to move on to another group, she looked up from her work and asked me, " it okay if I start over and go with this story idea?"

I smiled. A student who is okay with completely scrapping previous work and starting over...all because she's found the story she really wants to tell?

You can probably guess my answer: a resounding "Yes!"


My takeaways from all of this? Starting over is okay--especially when you've found a story you're excited to tell. The best ideas are often found through organic conversation.

But the biggest, most momentous part of this experience? Originality is overrated.

None of Victoria's new ideas are searingly original. None of ours are. All ideas are derivatives of inspiration gleaned from our experiences. The movies we watch. The stories we love. The poems we read. The places we go.

So what's the point in writing if it's all been said before?

Because you haven't said it. And no one else will say it just like you will.

Part of my job is to help my writers see that the true mark of originality is taking these "unoriginal" ideas and making them their own: through their voice, their perspective, their words.

Originality is so overrated.

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