Friday, November 7, 2014

Tell me a story; now tell me again

I wanted to write a story about a vampire guitarist. A friend scoffed: “If I had a nickel for every story about vampire guitarists…” Despite this quick dismissal of whatever need or passion was driving me to the sensuality of the vampire and the sensuality of music, I had to examine the idea that the story has already been written.

We often hear that every story has been written: the same love stories told again and again, the epic heroes on their quests, the rags to riches fantasies, the tragic hero’s fall.  We know of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the idea that basic patterns of the hero’s journey appear throughout literature, throughout time.

So what’s the point of writing if we’re allowed only to write something never done before, and yet everything has been done before? How do we define new? A werewolf guitarist? A vampire drummer? I’m deliberately trivializing because I can’t imagine dismissing anyone’s story idea without knowing what compels the writer to write it and how the writing of it might bring something new to life, or something old to life again. 

Why is it that so many writers, at some time or another, want to retell myths, fairy tales, and legends? Or want to extend characters and story lines from the ancient myths or even from their favorite books? Why when we read a novel we love, or view a painting that provokes us, or hear a song that stirs us, do we want to extend the experience?

A good story lives beyond the final word. A good story transcends cultures and generations. It must be that, however we’ve changed in society, something remains the same at the root. Are the myths retold because in them we recognize the basic human traits that pervade culture and time, and in recognizing that, there is comfort? What we are we have already been. Names change. Quests change. Gender changes. Nationality changes. The journey to a foreign land becomes the journey into the psyche. The battle with the giants becomes the battle with oppressive bigotry.

Are we justified in our fear of great power if we witness that same fear and the struggle to overcome in the ancient stories, still being told? What in stories of gods coming down from heaven to mold our fates can be found in tales of youth fighting society’s expectations or the questing soul coming to peace with the path life has drawn? One tale resonates in different ways for each person, each generation, each culture, depending on circumstances of place and time. A single story can be retold, reinterpreted, reimagined, relived a thousand times.

While we fight for individuality, for the way to say something fresh, I think we should be careful in defining what fresh means. If the goal is to say something new, the result often feels more like a gimmick, the piece contrived and conniving. Maybe it’s not saying something new that matters but reliving what’s old and what resonates in that universal way that makes us part of our history and our present and assures us a future as human beings.    

Stories don’t die unless we forget them.

What if we do forget? What will that make us?


"Eight writers modernize ancient mythologies in Distorted,  proving that not every story has been told” (or at least not told in quite this way). Available in November from Transmundane Press.  “Tantalizingly bloody tales featuring human pitted against beast and gods, with the true majesty and horrors of the afterlife, with love and death and desire…”

Blog writer
Patricia J. Esposito is author of Beside the Darker Shore and has contributed to Distorted  the short story “Where the Arrow Flies," a retelling of the Apollo and Daphne myth, in which thwarted love seeks its failed cure.


  1. Personally, I feel the reason the same themes, etc., continue to resonate with us personally or with the collective is because they represent something we have not "resolved" yet, if you will. As I see it, as a species, we are not awake, by which I mean we are nowhere near living or experiencing our actual potential as existent beings. It thus makes sense to me that impulses that point to that (including written works) will continue to resonate with us on levels that may not even be conscious, alerting us on those same (or sometimes conscious) levels that there is more to us, that we have not awakened yet.

    "A single story can be retold, reinterpreted, reimagined, relived a thousand times."

    It seems to me this can appear obvious in a single person's experience—have most of us not read a book or story more than once and found it affected us differently or illuminated something else/further the second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) time?

    Regarding writing, I personally give little credence to the idea that everything has been "written before" or what has been. I see authenticity and consciousness as the hallmarks of creative offerings (which I see as not only limited to art, by the way), and in fact I see those as far more relevant than the actual content of what is being offered. So if those are there—or more accurately, the more they are there—the more the offering, whatever it is, will resonate and touch those levels in the world, even if those affected are not consciously aware of it or why.

    I personally prefer the quote from I read a number of years ago in Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul: "Everything has not been said, and will never be said." - Irving Wallace

    Thanks for a lovely, evocative post, Patricia! I've no doubt you do justice to all we've discussed here with "Where the Arrow Flies." :)

    1. Emerald, I love what you have to say about stories resonating with us due to something unresolved. I was talking to a friend once about what would happen if we did feel at complete peace with our nature and life, if everything felt resolved, and we both thought at once, we would stop writing. It would be done. And then we'd die because life was complete. To be awakened on the level you're expressing I think would remove me from this earthy life. When I experience moments like that, I feel slightly distanced, yet happy. And I expect then I wouldn't need to retell those stories! Do we eventually transcend? Can we transcend and still desire creation?

      Thanks for that insight or expansion. I'm still thinking!

      Yes, you'd think the idea that stories can be retold is obvious, but I hear a lot of writers expressing concern about telling yet another tale about witches or zombies or thwarted love. I know writers who put a stop to their story for that reason alone. It's not new, they say.

      When I was researching Campbell's monomyth, I found many arguments against the theory, but I think it's in how broadly we're looking at the categories, how much wiggle room we allow and reconfiguring to match our times. Yes, what's new is what we bring to the stories ("authenticity and consciousness"--thanks for this too!). In each person the story has new life.

      I appreciate your thoughts and for taking the idea further.

  2. "I hear a lot of writers expressing concern about telling yet another tale about ..."

    Indeed, I have to. It's just one of those things I find a bit truly confounding—as you so beautifully put it in the third paragraph of your post here, "I can’t imagine dismissing anyone’s story idea without knowing what compels the writer to write it and how the writing of it might bring something new to life, or something old to life again."

    Exactly. I feel that way so much that I honestly don't pay much attention to the idea of what's "new" or "original" as far as idea or theme. Does it compel you (as the writer)? Do you feel drawn to speak what is in you about it? Authenticity. That, at the risk of sounding repetitive, is what matters to me. There will be something new, something unique, something that is coming through you for an exquisitely particular reason, if it is authentic.

    This is all assuming one isn't purposely writing something deliberately similar to another work out of the impression it will be "successful" since it seemed to be for someone else. That idea feels foreign to me, so I've usually operated under the assumption that it is indeed absent. (That's not to say no one does that—I just meant that such a situation is not really even on my radar, and it's probably unusual for me to be in a conversation that involves that least for long.)

    My partner and I went to see Alton Brown (celebrity chef with his own cooking show, if you're not familiar with him) live on Sunday, and I interpreted him as saying in answer to a question that there are really only a dozen or so "basic" recipes—everything else is an expansion or alteration of those. I found that so interesting, and it really reminds me of this conversation as well. Eggs Benedict might seem to be the exact same recipe in a lot of contexts, but has it not tasted different depending on who was making it? The actual ingredients used (as far as freshness, source, etc.)? Food for thought. (HA! Sorry, couldn't seem to resist that. ;) )

    1. Haha, yes, food for thought. :) Interesting. Looking at it from the perspective of foods, something I never thought about, makes me more aware of how it's far too simplistic to say everything has been done before. Well, of course, we've been saying just that, but I guess I'm thinking that even the argument might not be of value, the weighing against the past. Yet, part of me also says we learn from seeing where we fit in the whole as well. The eggs Benedict an expansion of ___. But then we could keep moving backward till everything we do is simply the expansion of one initial creation!

      "There will be something new, something unique, something that is coming through you for an exquisitely particular reason, if it is authentic." Yes, this! I've tried to examine the difference in one piece of literature over another, what makes one feel formulaic and one feel fresh, and sometimes it was difficult to name. All the proper materials can be there, setting, plot, character development, but it's not ... breathing (I never know what to call it, but I think it's the quality of authenticity you refer to).

      Oy, all this talk of writing and now I want to do something creative!