I have been thinking about this thread ever since you started it, Sarah, but have been uncertain about contributing … actually, I don’t know that I can “contribute” as I don’t have any idea, original or otherwise, about how to find a story idea, original or otherwise.
I’m not a writer … well, I do write up my lecture notes for my (Chinese) students, and I have been putting a paper together with a colleague — 1 year and counting … we are both continually sidetracked but other demands, and I, for one, don’t have to write papers or do research, and she has written 6 others within that year! — but probably most of my written work is editing — rewriting, perhaps — into natural English, translations done by Chinese speakers. Vicarious creativity. But many, many people, both here and in the UK keep pushing me about writing a book; some want me to write books about my take on and my interests in linguistics, most think I should write a (fantasy) novel. My answer to the latter is always, “Tolkien wrote it! Anything I wrote would be derivative.”
But there are three things that struck me … firstly, that you are, I understand, a PhD student, and secondly, as many here have said, that there’s no such thing as an original story. The third is the contrast between here, China, and the west in terms of expectations in both research and literature.
On the PhD thing: of course, the fundamental characteristic of a PhD Thesis is that it must be original, so you have spent the last however many years of your life fully committed to originality. But if you are wanting to move on to writing fiction, you don’t need to see it in the same light as that PhD requirement.
Others have already said much about originality in literature and how to generate ideas, so I hope it’s not too far OT, but …
One of the problems, it seems to me, in the academic world within China, is that the ethos of study, research etc., particularly in the humanities where it doesn’t need to go out onto the international stage, is the inheritance of the literary past. In China, a great poem can be one which takes a poem by one of the great poets of ancient times and merely changes one or two characters/syllables/words — ancient literary Chinese was monosyllabic, modern Chinese is not, in spite of what so many in the west like to think — and, if successful, that becomes a new poem that achieves(ed) popular recognition and itself becomes the basis for other people’s elaboration. The same for the Confucian examinations throughout history … being original was a recipe for failure … being able to reproduce the wisdom of others with minor embellishments of language was the recipe for success.
So, literature was developed very much on the lines of embellishment of previous works, rather than the search for total originality. And that has come down into academic studies, that a thesis should embellish work done by the supervisor and respected academics, not search for originality at the risk of showing the supervisor or others to be wrong. It is for the supervisor and the famous professors to be original, not the students. The result is that so many MA theses — PhD ones don’t come my way — consist largely of quotations, even to the extent of what to us would be plagiarism, of the standard works and the papers of the supervisor. That is to show respect for those noted academics.
In a sense, the Chinese, without theorising about it, and under the umbrella of their cultural system, took all writing to be on the basis of the reproduction down a chain of embellishment of an “ur-text”. And that is really the foundation of our literature … Shakespeare didn’t invent Romeo and Juliet … that goes down a chain leading to Greece … and it didn’t stop with Shakespeare, the same “ur-story” has been taken up by creators like Bernstein in “West Side Story” and so on.
But culturally, we in the west, particularly the Anglo-Saxon west — try reading the plays of Corneille if you don’t believe me on that latter point — value originality, or the appearance of originality; the Chinese value knowledge of and respect for tradition.
To come back slightly more on topic, perhaps Sarah, as someone who has been struggling for the last few years in the epitome of western academic perception, you need to think a bit more in the Chinese way when it comes to writing that story. Or perhaps one could misquote Alexander Pope …
Great works are but old tales better dressed,
What oft was said, but ne'er so well expressed.