I was writing late last night and, on re-reading what I had written became aware of an odd juxtaposition of certain words. They took me straight back to a book where a particular passage had left its mark. There was no thought of copying; no intent to re-use or appropriate the work of another writer, and what I had noticed was no more than three words long. Perhaps it was the context rather than the phrase that had been the reminder. Even so, it got me thinking.
With all the words that have been written by the human hand over the millennia, are there any that have been left unsaid? Can we ever write without plagiarising, consciously or unconsciously the work of another who has gone before? I remember reading once that Shakespeare had summarised every human emotion in his work. That is open to debate, of course, and the perspective from which he wrote was a personal one. We can only ever write from our own understanding, even where we build a character from imagination who has an utterly different nature from our own. The lens through which we view them is still ours alone… our view of their view.
With all the billions of words that have been consigned to stele, parchment, stone and paper, let alone the influx of communication brought about by computers, can we possibly write anything original? It is said there are only seven basic stories, though there are many who would argue that too. The majority of the arguments are based around where you draw the line for sub-plots and details, but even so, there seems to be agreement that there is a finite number of stories that can be told within those broad lines. As stories reflect life, either in literal or symbolic form, that must therefore mean that there are also a mere handful of stories we can actually live.
Yet our human experience is as vast and as varied as one could possibly imagine, our individual stories as numerous as the grains of sand on a wave washed beach. Aren’t they? Perhaps not as much as we would like to think. The details, degree and order may differ, but the broad themes of life seem to touch us all. It is through this shared experience that we can communicate effectively. How could we write of love or loss, of laughter or adventure if these concepts were utterly alien to our readers? We have to draw an answering response from mind or emotion before a reader can engage with what we write. They have to see through the mirror of their own experience. We have to allow them to draw upon the shared experience of human life and we have a finite number of words with which to paint our stories.
In any language there are only so many ways of forming a phrase. Of the millions of words, only a handful will go together with each other and make a specific kind of sense that conveys meaning. It seems highly unlikely that any of these possible phrases have never been used before. Many phrases carry a particular emotional content or call up an image through colloquial use that means something very different from the literal interpretation. We use these sayings all the time and understand each other through them. So where does plagiarism begin and end? Where is the line between drawing inspiration from another writer, paying a tribute in homage to their thought and skill and simply taking their ideas and making them your own? It is a thorny question for the writer who has probably been a reader all their life, devouring the written word with greater regularity than hot dinners.
I am not talking about the blatant plagiarists who copy a plot wholesale or try to take credit for work not their own, that is a different matter. I think that as with most things, it is the intent that is important. There is an alchemy that grows from the knowledge gleaned from those multiple sources as we ourselves grow, seeing understanding unfold for us as individuals, drawing inspiration from those who have passed this way before. There are phrases that stand out for us with a meaning perhaps visible to others, perhaps not… odd images painted by pens long run dry that open up a world of possibility for us. If such things creep quietly and unnoticed into our work, then perhaps that is not plagiarism but homage. Wouldn’t it be nice to think someone, one day, would pick up a musty, dog-eared volume and carry a phrase forward that we had brought to life for them?