Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"If it's out there, it's mine"

There are stories that I can't write because someone else has already written them.

I recognize the absurdity of this idea. With many thousands of years of the storytelling tradition behind us, is originality even a plausible concept? Still, we all strive for the fresh, the new, the unique. Or so I thought.

Last week, I stumbled across an interview with John Mellencamp on NPR's Fresh Air. In response to a question on his songwriting process, he said:

As I've matured as a songwriter, I realized that if it's out there, it's mine. You know, everything I see and hear, I don't care if Shakespeare wrote it, or if Tennessee Williams wrote it, or if Bob Dylan wrote it, or I see it on a sitcom. If I hear words, they're mine. And so I will take ideas from any place, anywhere, anytime, and life has become a song to me. I'm always looking for a song.

I was floored. Sure, repackaging plots from Shakespeare and Jane Austin is a time-honored and profitable tradition, but isn't the real goal to create something new? Yet here was a successful and respected songwriter on the other end of my radio telling me that I had it all backwards.

Obviously, we can't take these words too literally. There are copyright issues to be considered, after all. But John Mellencamp is clearly telling us that, as artists, originality is perhaps the least important factor. Not only that, but this is a conclusion that he's come to after years of experience and success. It's a wisdom he's reached.

It seemed radical when I first heard him say those words, "if it's out there, it's mine." Then I thought about all the stories I'd abandoned after I remembered who else had written them. Maybe some of them would have been great tales. Maybe they would have gone in new directions, and I would have been the only one who saw the similarities in the final product. It's definitely a philosophy that I'd like to try out for myself. I'm sure Mr. Mellencamp won't mind me stealing it. After all, he put it out there. Now it's mine.