Sunday, January 28, 2007

Story Clay

That which has been is what will be,
That which
is done is what will be done,
And there
is nothing new under the sun.

--Ecclesiastes 1:9, (NKJV)

In his diary, Michelangelo wrote the following about creating his very famous sculpture of David:

"The City Council asked me to carve a colossal David from a nineteen-foot block of marble -- and damaged to boot! I locked myself away in a workshop behind the cathedral, hammered and chiseled at the towering block for three long years. In spite of the opposition of a committee of fellow artists, I insisted that the figure should stand before the Palazzo Vecchio, as a symbol of our Republic. I had my way. Archways were torn down, narrow streets took forty men five days to move it. Once in place, all Florence was astounded. A civic hero, he was a warning...whoever governed Florence should govern justly and defend it bravely. Eyes watchful...the neck of a bull...hands of a killer...the body, a reservoir of energy. He stands poised to strike."

I love those four words: "I had my way." They still ring with Michelangelo's satisfaction.

The "damaged to boot" part is the interesting part, though. Another artist -- Agostino di Duccio -- had started working on that particular marble block forty years earlier, but for whatever reason had failed to make anything out of it. There aren't any photographs of the original marble block, but some biographies hint that Agostino had also been working on depicting David, and that Michelangelo had picked up where he left off.

In the writing world, it's often said that there are no new stories. What we write has already been done, and our books are nothing new under the sun. Chiseled in marble, statues of perfection, might as well give it up, etc.

Unless you consider that the writer can be the new factor in the equation.

Paying homage to what has been done (or, if you look at it from another view, ripping off someone else's work) by producing knock-offs isn't the same thing; look at what's happened to poor Tolkien over the years. Knock-offs may not be illegal, but they are troubling. No matter how they tweak it, if a writer doesn't bring anything new to a story, they're only creating a poor imitation.

Maybe it's the storyteller's sacred obligation to do whatever they can to bring something fresh to every story. Everyone sees things differently; the best storytellers show us old favorites via such a different angle that we see them in an entirely new light.

Take one of the most beloved myths in the world: Pygmalion, another story about a block of marble. Pygmalion brought his vision of the perfect woman to the stone and created Galatea, whom Aphrodite brought to life. Which inspired George Bernard Shaw, who adapted the myth for the stage, which eventually became the musical My Fair Lady; Stephen King to write his novel Carrie (and yeah, we've debated this one for years, but I still think it's a twisted version); the 1999 movie She's All That, in which high school jock Freddie Prinze Jr. turns a geeky Rachael Leigh Cook into a prom queen.

Cinderella, Pretty Woman, Miss Congeniality, The Princess Diaries -- they all have their roots in Pygmalion. Even Jessica Hall, may she rest in peace, drew on the myth as inspiration for the relationship and characters of the protagonists in her novel Heat of the Moment*. What makes them unique is not the mythic foundation upon which they're built, but how the storytellers used that, not as marble to worship, but as clay to be remolded into their individual vision of love and transformation. They reshaped it with their tools, touch and inner vision into something new under the sun. That's what can never be duplicated.

*I know, I have to stop talking about myself in third person.


  1. Anonymous3:23 PM

    *squeals* Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of the Bible! :) It's also the basis for my senior thesis, a thirty page story about a photographer seeking a homeless prostitute. Yay! Random. Love this entry; it's so true.

  2. *clunk* This is my sign. I'm on the right track. Today I started to turn Cyrano on it's ear.


  3. very interesting and so true


  4. Anonymous8:27 PM

    Even Jessica Hall, may she rest in peace, drew on the myth as inspiration for the relationship and characters of the protagonists in her novel Heat of the Moment*.

    And she did so very well. Although I have to wonder... IS that possible on a motorcycle? I think I'd be afraid to try.

  5. Ah, Pygmalion.

    The first fiction I published professionally, "The Girl of Flesh", is a (rather obvious) reverse twist on Pygmalion. Gunnm, a famous manga series by Yukito Kishiro, currently a film titled Battle Angel, in pre-production by James Cameron, is Pygmalian-inspired. Its heroine's name is 'Gally'. The current anime series Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge is yet another take on Pygmalion.

    No matter where in the world you go, you cannot escape Pygmalion.

    But is 'Pygmalion' a plot -- or a theme?

  6. Anonymous11:52 PM

    Thanks very much for that post. I've often wondered if I'll every write anything good. I obsess over whether my stories are original, if they've never been done before, but now I see that I just have to bring something different to the table. Thank you very much.

  7. This is an encouraging post. As a writer I feel like I'm just spinning in circles wondering if anyone will want to read my story which is the same kind of story as so and sos. This hit the spot!


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