The Journey of Ideas

by Julie, enjoying the fall colors though today’s wind gusts are whirring them around

Yesterday I read an article about one author who was concerned with the alarming similarities between her book and another author’s work. They both wrote historical fiction about packhorse librarians, and there do seem to be similarities. But rather than one author plagiarizing the other, could there be another reason for the similarities?

This fall I reread Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. The subtitle of the book is “creative living beyond fear”. More on that in a bit.

In Big Magic, she tells a story about a novel she was working on. It was a big novel about the Amazon jungle. She was working on the idea, and then life got in the way. When she got back to the novel her inspiration was gone, so she set it aside for the time being. A while later, she was having lunch Ann Patchett. They were talking about their works in progress, and Liz started, telling Ann about the Amazon book, confessing that it was stuck. In her tell, Liz Gilbert says that Ann looked a bit pale, and then proceeded to tell Liz about her work in progress. Which took place in the Amazon jungle. There were many other similarities between the two books.

Liz Gilbert believes that when she didn’t write the book her idea moved on to another writer who was ready for the inspiration. That the muse traveled rather than letting the idea die. By that way of thinking, the muse can give several people the same idea, safe in the knowledge that they will all use it different ways.

Now, I do not condone plagiarizing, or stealing ideas. But here’s what I know. The Wickeds could all take the same idea, even a fairly complex one, and we would write very different novels. That’s the nature of creativity. The same idea gets different treatment depending on who is doing the work. This is true for all sorts of creative expression.

And so, my dear aspiring creatives, never worry that someone else has “already done” your idea. Worry instead that if you don’t act on the idea that sparked your creativity it will travel to someone else and inspiration will leave you.

Dear readers, don’t worry about reading “another xyz” book. Like, say, a gardening cozy. You never know what the different take on the same idea will bring, and how you might enjoy the story.

“Creative living beyond fear” is the subtitle of Big Magic. Fear is a powerful motivator for all of us, isn’t it? Fear is designed to protect us. But when we choose to be creative, whatever that journey, that requires fear be thanked for taking care of us, and then moved out of the way. When we embrace an idea and choose to act on it in a positive way, that’s a brave thing. Brave doesn’t mean without fear. Brave means doing it despite the fear.

Creativity takes many forms. We’re all writers, but we also have other creative pursuits. I knit, bake, I paint terribly. All of these creative pursuits help me as a writer. They help me with my process. They also make my life more fun.

I love thinking about, talking about, coaching on creativity. We all have creative energy waiting to be expressed. Don’t let “it’s already been done” stop you. For those of you interested, I’m doing a free, online masterclass next week on “6 Ways to Unlock Your Creativity”. You can sign up here.

Friends, what do you think about the journey of ideas? Have you ever had an idea that was “used” already? Did that stop you from exploring the path?

18 Thoughts

  1. Julie, I love this post, and the story about Liz Gilbert and Ann Patchett. What you said, “requires fear be thanked for taking care of us, and then moved out of the way,” reminded of a Rumi poem I love:
    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.
    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.
    The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
    meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
    Be grateful for whatever comes.
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    — Jellaludin Rumi,

  2. We talked about some of this in New Hampshire but I love the expansion on the topic. When The Gun Also Rises came out which uses the real bit of history about Hemingway manuscripts being stolen, a women came up to me and said “I was going to use that in a book.” I told her to go ahead, our stories would be different. Another author, Shaun Harris (no relation) also used if for the basis for his book The Hemingway Thief which is a caper and got a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Julie. As a writer of contemporary cozy mysteries, I’m hesitant to read other contemporaries for fear of unintentionally “stealing” someone else’s ideas. I’m going to commit to letting go of that fear. Cheers!

  4. I’m sure all my ideas have been used before, but I’m also sure each of the stories is different because people are different. I don’t worry about having “the same idea,” I worry about how to bring my own twist to it.

  5. I just read a book, which I loved, that was also part of a plagiarism accusation. The case was tossed early on, but I read what I could to find out what caused the trouble. The accuser had a list of 22 points of similarities, which was very interesting. Most of the points were general–both were set on an island, both featured an emotionally distant main character, both were set in the same general era–and there were only one or two points that were close enough for a hmm. Coincidence, I presumed, but it made me think. I don’t worry about anyone stealing an idea, and don’t think others should, either. That being said, if I had a truly unique take or inspiration, I’d keep it to myself until I wrote the thing. Which is probably a good idea anyway–the more you’re talking about a story, the less you’re writing it!

    1. So interesting. I’ve heard of this happening a few times. I do agree with you–I keep the story to myself until it’s in my computer (which is a process, since I’m a plotter) so the idea stays with me.

  6. Edith, I love the Rumi poem. I welcome all experiences because there is so much to learn from them, even if what I’ve learned is I don’t like them.

  7. Never is this more obvious than tv. You can see the same basic plot idea on several shows over the course of a couple of weeks if you are paying attention. Does that mean plagiarizing is taking place? No. It just means the same spark of an idea inspired several different people at the same time. And the episodes themselves turn out to be quite different.

    1. Agreed. It’s happened in theater a few times–there were two musicals about PHANTOM OF THE OPERA done around the same time, and two WILD PARTY musicals. The muse was busy.

  8. I have always believed this, but it came home to me when writing for Kensington’s novella collection. Three authors are given the same assignment, “Eggnog Murder” or “Yule Log Murder” and the stories are all different.

    Kaitlyn Dunnett has written about how she, Lea Wait and I all were inspired by the story of a body in a freezer, and all wrote completely different books.

    Alafair Burke tells a story of how she found out very late in the game that another well-known mystery author was writing a book inspired the exact same court case coming out in a similar timeframe. Since they had different publishers there was a lot of rigamarole involved in getting a look at each others’ books, but when they did–you guessed it–they were completely different, in both cases the original inspiration barely discernible.

  9. I don’t mind reading books with similar themes or ideas. They usually are quite different. I did read about cases in the romance book world where entire paragraphs and even chapters were stolen. Using the same inspirations is OK but not copying actual dialogue and sentences. At least not without crediting them.

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