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?
-------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.