I worry about repeating myself. Like, a lot.
If you ask anyone who knows me (especially my partner, the poor guy), you’ll know that when someone starts to tell me a story I’ve already heard, I start nodding, sometimes in a bit of annoyance (I’m an awful person) and will quickly rattle off the end of the story they’re telling me. Of course, this gives them ample opportunity (not to mention justification) to say to me, “Oh yeah? Well, you repeat yourself all the time!” And they’re probably right.
Any time I sit down to write something—this blog post, for example—I’ll reach a point where I pause and ask, “Wait, have I written about this already?” This leads to an extended period of scrolling through old blog entries, journal files, and whatnot to see if whatever topic I’m writing about has come up before. This is its own form of procrastination, I suppose.
And yet, as much as I hate repeating myself, I love to rewatch old movies more times than is either necessary or productive. (Thankfully, iTunes does not keep track of the number of times I’ve watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) I’ve reread stories countless times as well (“Wants” by Grace Paley is high up there, not just because I often use it as an example in my classes; so is “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang for the same reason).
So why am I so irked when others repeat stories, and why does it worry me when I do it myself? Maybe it shouldn’t.
Repetition isn’t (always) wrong.
Something my high school art teacher said has stuck with me over more years than I care to count. I was getting into watercolors and spent a lot of time working in that medium, and she encouraged my progress. “Once you’ve done a hundred or so,” she said, “you start to get it.”
A hundred? I wondered. How long would that take me?
It turns out, it took me most of the rest of that year, and while I’m not sure I “got it,” I did get better. Then I started working in pastels and pretty much fell in love with those. Although I don’t do any artwork these days, I think her point has some bearing here. Likewise, if you follow Olympic sports, you might hear how swimmers like Michael Phelps will swim 40,000 meters in a single week of practice. And that’s just practice.
A year, it turns out, is not really that much time. I write and revise stories, set them aside and revise them again, abandon them and then write a different story on the same theme that turns out to have more in common with that previous story than just a topic. In a workshop one of my peers said of a manuscript I submitted that it had the trifecta of love, longing, and loss, the common themes of my work. (I decided not to take this as a criticism.) Even if the characters, settings, and situations change, are they the same stories?
Repetition is practice
The stories we tell each other, on the second or third or thirtieth telling, evolve a little each time. Maybe we get closer to the truth—not of the events as they actually happened, but of their significance to us.
So if I’ve written about practice and repetition before, maybe it’s because I’m still trying to figure them out. And I’m going to work on being a little less exasperated when someone tells me the same story twice. Instead, I’ll see if I can notice how the story changes as they retell it. Maybe they’re getting closer to their truth.
I repeat the things that matter to me.
What I repeat also says a lot about my focus.
Case in point: in one of my fiction workshops in graduate school. When my story was up for discussion, a friend of mine started off by saying, “This has the trifecta of a Jeffrey Ricker story: love, longing, and loss.” As the discussion went on, I missed a few things because I kept wondering, wait, is this story a retread? Am I just writing the same thing over and over?
It was a different story from all the others I’d submitted that year—different characters, plots, settings. However, as I mentally scrolled through my pile of stories for that class, it was true. I was writing about people longing for other people, losing other people, and loving and unloving other people.
Love, longing, loss. Surely there’s more to the world than that, isn’t there? On the other hand, those three things count for a lot, don’t they?
When I sit down to write a blog entry about writing—about the things I think about when it comes to writing—at some point in the process I usually flip back through the last few entries I’ve written to confirm that I’m not rewriting the same thing I wrote a month or three months (or six months) earlier. And sometimes, while it’s not word-for-word the same, the topics and the points are… well, familiar.
Whenever I repeat myself, I could look at this as a failing of my memory, the same way as when I pick up a book and it takes me twenty pages until I think hey, haven’t I read this before? Or instead, I can take it as a sign. An arrow pointing to the things that matter to me, the things that confuse me, and the things that make me go I wonder…
That repetition leads me to another realization. This one has less to do with what I write about and more to do with the genres I write in. Some writers, for instance, you think of them first and foremost as a mystery writer, or a YA writer, or a horror writer. I’ve landed in all three of those genres at one time or another, along with contemporary literary, speculative fiction, and fantasy, among others.
Back in that grad school fiction workshop in grad school, I submitted a science fiction story, a contemporary story, and a humorous one, among others. Someone described me as a “genre chameleon.” In contrast, a lot of my peers focused really strongly on certain themes, plots, or settings. I was all over the place.
I began to wonder, do I lack focus? By shifting among genres, am I making it hard for readers to follow me? Maybe.
What do you repeat?
Or maybe I was using different genres to explore the same things I keep returning to no matter what I write. So, in worrying about repeating myself, I figured something out. Those things I repeat? They’re my focus.
So, I’m going to keep repeating myself, I think, until I figure out what I’m trying to understand. What do you keep repeating, returning to, revisiting? Love, longing, and loss are all pretty high up on my list. Figuring them out could take a while.
I can think of worse ways to spend a life.