The story is in the retelling

As a writer, I am obsessed with being original; this thorn in my brain to have new ideas, better ideas. To be unique. Just like everyone else.

No one else has a pair of these, right?

This is why it’s a kindness that I read this article. I’m going to quote it because this is an post about unoriginal ideas.

Yes, the muggles are just like the terrible adults of Roald Dahl fiction; the foul-tasting magical candies come right out of a Monty Python skit; and wearing a horcrux that must be destroyed while worrying about its own corrupting influence on your soul sounds a lot like Tolkien’s one ring to rule them all. But those elements are not why people like Harry Potter. Instead, the Harry Potter universe is filled with rules that are constantly broken in the interest of equity. Time and time again, Harry and all the likable characters of Hogwarts break the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law. The best kind of wish fulfillment made all the better by the intensity of the defeated evil.

Indeed, compare Frodo’s trip to Mordor while wearing a corrupting ring with Harry Potter’s wearing of the horcrux. Frodo knows that carrying the ring is his burden. That it cannot be passed to another. Although Harry is facing an evil as great as Frodo’s, he shares the burden by altering the wearing of the horcrux between his two companions. Yes, the similarities are apparent, but it’s the distinction that holds Harry Potter’s specific charm.

J.K. Rowling taught me that using influences in a novel is a lot like using sampling in music. It’s absolutely fine to lift riffs and hooks from other songs as long as they are referential building blocks of your work instead of being the appeal of your work. For example, the “When Doves Cry” sample is the only good part of MC Hammer’s “Pray.” The “Under Pressure” riff is the only good part of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” But take a song like “Jackass” by Beck, built around a sampled loop from Them’s “It’s All Over, Baby Blue.” It stands completely on its own terms.

Rowling liberated me so much that when I wrote my serialized novella Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, I had great fun incorporating elements from Douglas Adams, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Palahniuk, George Orwell, David Bowie, George Romero and Scott Kosar, confident they were only cultural shortcuts enriching the story instead of stealing its individuality. So yeah, sorry, J.K. I was wrong.

There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea. When I think of the most memorable books I’ve read, they all play by these rules. Even the books we consider original draw on ancient mythology and cultural tropes. You have to use them because they are in your head. They are literally part of you. This is why tvtropes exists! You can never get away from them unless you live in a hut in the Canadian wilderness after wiping your brain clean in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but with all of society instead of one person.

This obsession with originality gives me headaches, quite literally. It stunts my writing productivity, and maybe it’s at the center of the bundle of fear all of us carry around inside. But that fear? All it needs is to take a breath, and the knots that keep me tied and unproductive untangle. I can breath. I can explore and find influences. I can begin to push barriers and find my style, my voice. This is why I made a concerted effort to try and write more ‘reactionary’ pieces in my blog. I want to focus on analysis and understanding and not throwing out grand, wild ideas. I need to understand before I can use those ideas. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write anything with some original posturing, and I tie up ideas and themes with my own conclusions.

The cliche goes that the story is in the telling. What you mean is what you say, just as you’re defined by what you do. It’s how you work ideas together, mold plot, and live your life. What we take for originality might be the ability to push past the wad of fears and all consuming duties and distractions of daily life. The people we remember are those who have shouted long and hard enough for their ideas to break into our minds. There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea.

And because I love this video, here is J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech from Harvard circa 2008.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

Evolution is culture

Evolutionary strategies are fighting battles in our culture right now. That is how evolution has transitioned to functioning in our big-brained animal world. We’re social animals, and our culture is an outstretched, warped version of biology. I’ve been struggling with how to digest a variety of news that has hit me over the break. I keep coming back to biology, evolution, and ultimately how survival of the fittest is going on in our culture. Humans have designed our culture, but at the same time, we’re still mammals. Our brains give us the ability to imagine scenarios, extending reality into this meta-simulation in our heads. We can take the basic struggles of biology and change them, theorize about them, and then create new ways in which to fight them out. We take the basic struggles of the African savanna and imagine new ways to fight these battles.

P.Z. Meyers wrote a piece about why women menstruate. It’s a question that you don’t think about all the time. I know how the biology of menstruation works. During the second half of the menstrual cycle, in the Luteal phase, the uterine wall thickens to get ready for a fertilized egg to implant. Menstruation happens when, at the end of the Luteal cycle (about 14 days), no egg implants, and the wall is shed in preparation for next months. The biology of how menstruation happens, however, is different from why it happens. It’s a wasteful process and not all mammals menstruate. When you think of the why in terms of evolutionary strategy, here is the anthropomorphized reasoning of why menstruation might occur.

So the question is, why do humans have spontaneous decidualization?

The answer that Emera suggests is entirely evolutionary, and involves maternal-fetal conflict. The mother and fetus have an adversarial relationship: mom’s best interest is to survive pregnancy to bear children again, and so her body tries to conserve resources for the long haul. The fetus, on the other hand, benefits from wresting as much from mom as it can, sometimes to the mother’s detriment. The fetus, for instance, manipulates the mother’s hormones to weaken the insulin response, so less sugar is taken up by mom’s cells, making more available for the fetus.

The larger aspect of this struggle is the male-female strategies of reproduction. Males want to spread their seed and come away with a pregnancy from every sexual encounter. Females want to get pregnant when they’re the healthiest, can carry the fetus to term, and then can live to reproduce again. These strategies are in competition, and I don’t think there is a winner. These strategies exist to propel human evolution forward, and they’ve created the species we have now. This female-fetal struggle is only one example of a evolutionary struggle in culture.

I don’t think it ends here. We’ve used technology to extend our animal abilities to extremes. We can now kill millions of people that we don’t like, for arbitrary reasons like skin color and ethnicity. There is nothing stopping rapid attacks against people considered to be outside of our group. It’s a psychology principle called in group bias, and it’s well documented. Most of the time, this bias is created by arbitrary standards, but it’s based in biology. We are conditioned not to trust people on the outside of our social groups. It’s a primal instinct, and with our frontal cortex, we’ve out-sized this in-group bias into every area of our culture. Politics is fueled by in-group, out-group bias. We’re conditioned to attack those who don’t think like we think, who don’t fall in line with our ideals.

This is why, when people ask, ‘why isn’t there more diversity in our group?’ I have to look at how they define themselves. Who is your in group? You have one, I promise you that it exists. Every movement, every culture has an in group. This brings me to the flood of news pieces I’ve read this week. There’s the rabid Ron Paul followers, the on-going atheist misogyny, the constant culture wars, and the countless spats that occur in the celebrity tabloids. What do these things have in common? We’re trying to fight what we consider the out group. No one is immune to it. In group bias is the antithesis of diversity. It’s us shutting ourselves down to others, creating barriers, and imposing a dominant culture on others. When you wonder where the diversity it, look at the in group. Understand what they’re doing, and understand evolution is driving us onward.