Are you ready to spin a good origin tale? This week, we ask you to invent (or reinvent) a creation myth.
Some of our most enduring stories are creation stories. We’re not nearly as interested in the soap operatic relationship dynamics between Hades, Persephone, and Demeter as we are in the the story’s explanation for how the seasons came to be. The tale of Arachne and Athena depicts an acute case of petty jealousy but also invents an origin myth for spiders.
This week I invite you to take a known thing and invent a creation story for it. As an example, I’ll cite B.J. Novak’s “A Good Problem to Have,” from the December 2013 issue of the magazine one story. In the piece (which you can read an excerpt of and an interview about here), Novak considers the familiar old math problem about trains leaving at different times from different destinations and meeting in the middle. He speaks about the genesis of the idea in the interview:
I was reading a Michel Houellebecq interview in which he was talking about intellectual property rights, and he made a quick passing reference to—among other examples—the hypothetical publishing rights of an author of a classic textbook problem. That caught my imagination: who did write those problems? And what if one of them did indeed seek compensation?
Novak shares with us the circumstances he imagines led to the authorship of the famous math problem. I think it’s a really brilliant thing to have done, and it’s a great way — especially if you’re in a rut — to take some old material and put a new twist on it.
So, try to think of a real phenomenon in the world about which you don’t know the actual origin, and then invent one. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- What circumstances led to the invention of the ceiling fan vs. just a standing fan?
- What domestic contention caused the hinged toilet seat to come into existence?
- Whose baby got stuck with a straight pin just enough times too many to provoke the invention of the safety pin?
- Rewrite a well-known creation story on your own terms.
- Run with Novak’s idea and tell the story behind the train problem or some other common math problem.
- Where did the “why did the chicken cross the road” joke (or some other joke) come from?
- What is the origin of one of the more colorful and non-obvious collective nouns? Is there some particular tragic reason we call it a murder of ravens?
Novak’s story is compelling to me because he chose an artifact from our culture and thought about the circumstances and personal relationships that might have led to its invention. As you write, try to think not just about the what or the how but also about the why and what human conflicts or desires led to the act of creation. This will give your story that extra universal component that makes your story not just interesting but actually emotionally relevant to your readers.