How Writing is Like the Ship of Theseus

Scott SummersOn Writing, Tips & Learns

There’s a philosophical paradox that applies in many ways to writing called the “Ship of Theseus”. It’s a Greek legend, first recorded by Plutarch, which states:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.Plutarch, Theseus

The question Plutarch points out is pretty straightforward: If you replace every plank, oar, and sail on the ship . . . is it still the same ship?

Likewise, if you start with an idea or even a character, and you add or subtract or replace the things central to that plot, character, or idea . . . is it still the same as what you started with?

Evolution vs. Overhaul

A few years ago, I was digging through an old writing folder (trying to figure out what to throw away and what to keep). I found the backstory information from a piece I was thinking about writing in 2008 — no more than three or four pages of world-building information.

Those three or four pages became the book that I’m finishing up now. Back from 2008. Over that time, it’s gone through countless iterations. It’s evolved, changed, adapted. The characters developed and grew, and the core of the original premise changed.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the bedrock of that 2008 draft — the stuff that I really planned to write about — didn’t make it into the 2017 construction of those same ideas. Each evolution, each overhaul changed my little ship from what it was into something different, until it wasn’t the same thing anymore. The line between evolution and overhaul appears to be a thin one.

I don’t believe that my current piece suffers because of that.

Originally Different

As a writer, it’s my responsibility to edit my own writing. I need to create something that resonates well with its target audience so that the ideas and themes I’m trying to portray have a lasting and enjoyable impact.

That doesn’t discount my 2008 notes. There’s still a story there. Working off the same source material, I could try to stick a little closer to the script and see what happenes next time. Maybe a 2018 attempt would be closer to my original vision. Or, perhaps my original vision needs to stay in the past so that my newer visions can be originally different.