On May 4, 2023, Ed Sheeran was cleared of copyright infringement in a lawsuit posed against him by Kathryn Townsend Griffin. The case began in 2017 when Griffin, daughter of Marvin Gaye’s co-songwriter, Ed Townsend, claimed that Sheeran’s hit song “Thinking Out Loud” stole elements of Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” including its melody and rhythm. Sheeran claimed that, had he lost the case and been charged with copyright infringement, he would have left the music industry entirely.
I used to believe that there was a limit on how many original songs, stories and ideas could be created. However, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the only limitation of originality is foundation. Sheeran did not copy Gaye’s work, nor was he inspired by “Let’s Get it On” during the writing of “Thinking Out Loud.” Rather, Sheeran simply used the standard foundational elements of pop music, including common chord progressions. Should writers be forbidden from repeating these base melodies, no more music would be produced.
Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar states that all people are equipped with a language acquisition device, an innate brain system that allows us to develop and comprehend language. In alignment with Chomsky’s theory, no language can be formed outside of this structure. Even so, there are more than 7,000 different languages in the world, each with its own slang and cultural variations. Within each language exists novelty — the ability to produce new, original meaning through the combination and manipulation of words.
Every art form has its own standard foundational elements — their own Universal Grammars, so to speak. There are certain tropes and ideas in fiction that have existed for centuries. Take the “star-crossed lovers” trope, which can be found in the most famous of romances from “Romeo and Juliet” to Catherine and Healthcliff of “Wuthering Heights.” These classic stories encompass the most quintessential elements of the trope, yet people continue to write about forbidden love, and understandably so.
When I first started writing, I tried to avoid any ideas that had been written about before. That includes all tropes, tragedies and mythical creatures that weren’t my own, any common sort of scene or any known relationship dynamic. Here’s the problem with this approach: All of our thoughts and ideas are extensions of things that we have already perceived and, thus, things that already exist. In that sense, nothing we create is truly original.
But value is not necessarily determined by how different art is from its predecessors. “Romeo and Juliet” was largely based on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Even the “greatest artists in history” copy and steal; only, they call it inspiration.
Why do we continue to write the same tropes and themes repeatedly? To start, the literary market is heavily saturated with demand for well-written fiction, even if this fiction is based on overdone ideas. Thus, the real question becomes: Why do we read the same tropes and themes repeatedly?
Perhaps each time we read we extract new meaning. Or, more likely, we simply find joy in the way the words flow off the page. I have consumed a plethora of romance novels this past year, not because I am searching for any sort of meaning, but because reading itself is a form of comfort for me.
Don’t let the impossibility of pure originality stop you from creating. Your voice may not be unique, but people want to listen. Write, knowing that nothing you write is fully your own. Think, knowing your thoughts are influenced by everything around you, including all of the stories you’ve already heard and all of the content you’ve already digested. Create, knowing your biggest inspirations are your artistic competitors, those whose craft you have consumed and admire. We read, write, create and consume, not to fundamentally challenge the status quo, but simply because it makes us feel good.
As a student writer, I have grappled with questions of purpose time and time again. I struggle with justifying my contribution to the craft. After all, there are so many writers with more interesting stories to tell, with more knowledge about the topic, with more anything than me. Why would a reader want to hear from me in particular? What is it that I can contribute to the conversation that no one else can? More simply, what is the point of my writing?
I write to make sense of the world. I write to develop my ideas in a deeper way than thinking allows. I am engrossed in the way that language can be manipulated, how a single letter has the potential to change the meaning of a phrase. I love shifting sentences like a puzzle, finding the perfect home for each thought. I write for myself — for my enjoyment, my sanity, my heart. And that is something that cannot be touched by repetition.
Talia Belowich is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.