Monday, October 7, 2013

I Quit

There's something disheartening about discovering that your ideas are not original. I remember the first time it happened to me. As a writer I tend to build my stories around an interesting premise. What if humans had risen to prominence while the five continents were still fused together? How would the Americas have fared without European involvement? What would Tolkien's Middle-Earth look like 1,000 years after the War of the Ring? I was describing my latest idea to a friend who, after listening to me patiently, uttered these horrific words:

It's already been done. 

I consulted Google for confirmation and was crestfallen. The similarities between my premise and this novel were uncanny. I felt cheated somehow, as if this author had invaded my mind and stolen my ideas.

My first instinct was to delete everything I had written. "What a shame," I thought. It had been such a good idea. No wonder someone else beat me to it.  

Oh well. Time to start from scratch.

That was my reaction after watching John Haidt's TED Talk, "The Moral Roots of Conservatives and Liberals," found at the top of this post. In his presentation Haidt dissects some of my favorite ideas with a skill and finesse I can never hope to match. The man is highly educated, a published author who has access to resources I can only dream of.

Why bother with this blog? There are likely thousands who share some facet of my thoughts and possess the resources necessary to deliver their message to the masses. People like Richard Dawkins, John Haidt, Malcom Gladwell, Jason Silva, and Ray Kurzweil reach millions of people. What's the use in writing a blog that reaches a few dozen?

No, I'm not quitting. Quite the opposite, I'm just getting warmed up.

There are few if any truly original ideas left out there. What we think of as new ideas are actually modifications of old ones. Take fantasy as a literary genre, for example. Even as a kid I noticed the stereotypes: brave knights, fire-breathing dragons, evil sorcerers, wise old wizards,  immortal elves, surly dwarves, green-skinned orcs--the list goes on.  Without Tolkien, very few people would know anything about magical rings, treasure-hoarding dragons, or heroic quests. The similarities between Tolkien's epic trilogy and every other fantasy book published since are far from coincidental. Authors fully welcome Tolkien's influence on their works. For a long time, these post-Tolkien authors made no effort to differentiate themselves from the man who inspired them.

Eventually, variations started to pop up. These variations--successful mutations of the fantasy gene, if you will--accumulated. Sub-genres like dark fantasy, sword-and-sandal, steampunk, and urban fantasy emerged. What better way to illustrate the evolution of ideas than to compare Lord of the Rings to, say, Game of Thrones?

Here is yet more convincing evidence in favor of meme theory. Tiny little modifications are made to existing ideas. Most are worthless but few prove valuable. Over time these worthwhile modifications add up and we find ourselves with a radically different idea than we started with. Remember, these are just shapeless notions manifested into reality by human ingenuity. Oh, the marvels!

As for the Meme Merchant, I'll stay the course. If I can contribute to the evolutionary process of ideas and maybe help a few people look at life differently along the way, I think that's valuable in itself. With your help, maybe I can pull together several ideas together and form something better than the sum of its parts. Not a new idea but an amalgamation of existing ideas. Sort of like when the Power Rangers combine their dino-bots into a gigantic, ultra-powerful mega-robot.
It's a MEGAZORD, for petesake!

Only cooler.

(PS. Even Tolkien's ideas were borrowed from the lore and mythology of the Norsemen. Furthermore, Richard Wagner wrote an epic opera about a ring so powerful it could rule the world in 1874. That's 63 years before Tolkien penned the Hobbit! Tolkien never denied Norse mythology's influence on his works; quite the opposite, he openly admitted taking many of his ideas from their pages.The lesson? It's not plagiarism if you tweak the details! /rant over)

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