I thought, there must be some diplomatic cables leaked from the North Pole, from Santa’s workshop! I thought he must have a highly trained staff of diplomatic elves, in little business suits—he is on friendly terms with just about every government in the world, and that is not easy to do! I was sure I’d find some communiqué where he pleaded with Kim Jong Il to be allowed to visit North Korea this year… or maybe once some of Rudolph’s reindeer shit accidentally got into Vladimir Putin’s stocking and nearly provoked an international incident! But there weren’t any cables. Just a message from that Julian Assange saying “Seriously, it doesn’t even count as a leak to tell you that Santa isn’t real.” So that’s it! There’s no Santa! No reindeer! No cute little diplomatic elves! None of it is real…And then, two days before the performance, I received my holiday issue of The New Yorker in the mail, and discovered a humor column about Santa and Wikileaks--this time purporting to publish cables leaked by "a disgruntled elf" that revealed the inner workings of Santa's regime. Subsequently, I have also seen "Santa and Wikileaks" jokes pop up in a viral video and on Huffington Post, which means that this trope is officially played out.
But anyway, I was not happy when I saw the New Yorker humor piece. I thought I would either have to cut one of my best jokes, or have everyone think that I stole it from The New Yorker. In the end, the joke stayed, and nobody accused me of plagiarism. (After all, I had given the joke the twist of "I thought there'd be Santa documents on Wikileaks, but there weren't," whereas most iterations of this joke are the straightforward "Santa's Naughty List gets published on Wikileaks! Oh noes!") But for a few days there, it felt like a playwright's worst nightmare: someone "scoops" you on an idea, or a premise, or a joke, that you'd worked hard on!
Meanwhile, I've been working through the New Yorker holiday double issue, and on my commute home today I read the short story, "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders. It is a terrific story -- one of my favorites of the year. It concerns a facility where imprisoned criminals are used as guinea pigs to test powerful, mind-altering pharmaceuticals -- including a drug that can alter your brain chemistry to make you fall madly in love with whoever you're sitting next to. So it's sci-fi, but the kind that uses sci-fi tropes to explore what it means to be human. It is very powerful.
Now, without revealing too much of what I'm working on, I recently began writing a play based on the idea that, in the near future, scientists will develop a "love potion" drug that will alter your brain chemistry to make you fall in love with a specific person. It will use a vaguely sci-fi premise to explore what it means to be human, what it means to love, et cetera.
So, naturally, I was a bit annoyed that Saunders had written such a great story, using a similar premise! (And twice in one issue, the New Yorker publishes something similar to something I'm working on... what are the odds of that?) However, I don't see it as a reason to give up on my own play. For one thing, Saunders' story goes in a very different direction than I intend my play to go. I've gained a reputation this year for being cruel to my characters, but the ending of "Escape from Spiderhead" is far darker and crueler and more brilliantly twisted than my own play will be.
For another, I think the Santa/Wikileaks thing annoyed me because I didn't find the humor column in The New Yorker particularly funny. So, I thought, not only would people assume that I had stolen a joke from The New Yorker, they would assume I had stolen a lame joke from The New Yorker. Whereas, because George Saunders is so awesome, I wouldn't mind it if people thought I stole my premise from him, as long as I developed it differently. I could call it a homage, and people would respect that!
There's an excellent interview with George Saunders on the New Yorker Book Bench blog. I really liked what he had to say about the ending of his story, in response to a question about whether his protagonist makes the "right" decision:
I don’t know that it was the right one. But I think it was the most interesting one. That’s a funny thing about writing stories. We have that illusion that we are “deciding” what to make a character do, in order to “convey our message” or something like that. But, at least in my experience, you are often more like a river-rafting guide who’s been paid a bonus to purposely steer your clients into the roughest possible water. It’s as if the writer has to keep asking, What choice is going to give off the maximum bumpage? And if you go that way—in the direction of the biggest bump—then the thematics of the story will change; but it’s not really your decision to make. The energy of the story dictates it.That's how I often feel as a writer -- it's why I have this tendency to be cruel to my characters, to put them in agonizing situations and keep raising the stakes. Cruelty causes maximum bumpage.