The Ship of Theseus & Your Story

Imagine an old wooden ship, damaged from battle and worn out from weather, that is restored to like-new condition by replacing every single board, plank, oar, and sail. Even the ropes and nails used in the construction process are new. Under such conditions, can the ship be said to be fundamentally the same ship as before, or is it an entirely different ship?

This thought experiment, known as “The Ship of Theseus,” has been debated and mused over by philosophers for centuries, including by the likes of Plutarch and Aristotle. The central question deals with a paradox within the nature of reality and whether things that grow and change can still remain the same.

I wrote a story once which stemmed from an opening line that I thought was fantastic. As soon as I wrote that opening line, I felt the floodgates open, and the next thing I knew, I had a perfectly decent little story. It wasn’t perfect, but it was out there. My little ship had been launched, and it appeared to be seaworthy.

When I went back and started taking a closer look at my story, however, I began to notice that it was taking on some water. Several small holes (and one rather large one) had appeared in the hull which hadn’t been apparent while I was in the throes of writing. The central conflict was weak, for instance. Several of the characters didn’t feel as developed as they could be. And the ending was a bit of a downer. I wasn’t sure exactly how to repair some of these holes on my own, and so I asked my writing partner for some help. She offered her perspective and gave some really excellent suggestions, and so I set about repairing my story.

What I hadn’t anticipated were the consequences of such repairs. Each time I patched one hole, it seemed that another would open up somewhere else. And then another, and then another. After a while, I felt like all I was doing was desperately bailing out my ship, trying to keep it from sinking. Patching leaks clearly wasn’t working. I decided that a complete overhaul would be necessary, so I pulled my little story from the water and put it into dry dock.

I took a good hard look at my story, going over every square inch, and began to identify some of the major problems, beginning with the beginning. Of all the things I thought might be wrong with my story, it hadn’t occurred to me that my opening line was among the chief offenders. I was devastated. How could I replace that line? The one thing I was sure was perfect about my story, and it turns out to be a main problem? This wasn’t fair.

But I gritted my teeth, wiped away the tears, and changed the line. I had ripped the keel out of my ship and laid a new one. Which, of course, meant that I now had to change other parts of the story to fit the new tone and direction of the opening line. The basic plot and characters were still there, but several parts of my story which had been told one way, were now being told in a completely different way.

On the one hand, I was happy that my story was beginning to take on a new life, but on the other hand, I began to freak out a little. Every change necessitated another change, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that another piece of my original story was being lost forever. Was this new story still the same story? Was it still my story? Was I writing my own version of the Ship of Theseus?

I told my writing partner about my concerns. She responded with some pointed questions:

 “Are the same elements of the plot still being told?” she asked.

“More or less,” I said.

“Do the new elements make the story stronger?”

I said they did.

“Does the new ending work better than the old ending?”

It does.

“It might not be the exact same story you started out with,” she said, “but is it the story you wanted to end up with all along?”

I thought about her question, and then admitted that it was.

She then said, “I think it’s ultimately the same story, because it’s your story. You, as the author, are the link between where it began and where it is now.”

As I’ve thought about what she said, I’ve come to my own conclusion about this literary Ship of Theseus paradox. I believe it is fundamentally the same ship. I doubt there is any story anywhere that survives completely intact beyond the first draft, and certainly nothing that makes it all the way to publication. Stories change and grow depending on who is telling them, and that’s a good thing. In fact, stories often change because the storytellers themselves change over time. And not just change emotionally or spiritually, but even physically. When I told another friend of mine with a medical background about the Ship of Theseus, she blew my mind by saying, “Every cell in your body is replaced approximately every seven years. Are you still the same you?”

I wrote the first draft of my little story two years ago, and it was an honest reflection of who I was at the time. But the story as it is today is not exactly the same story as it was then, because I am not the exactly same person I was then. The story as it stands today is a reflection of who I am now, and it’s a story I couldn’t have told even two years ago.

Heraclitus famously stated that it is impossible to cross the same river twice, not only because the nature of the river itself is constantly changing, but also because the person crossing the river is as well. Writing and revision change not only the story, but also the storyteller. It is the process of building and rebuilding the Ship of Theseus. Change is to be expected, but so long as the soul of the story—the soul of the storyteller—remains intact, then the ship will sail in all its glory.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

2 thoughts on “The Ship of Theseus & Your Story

  1. Thanks for sharing this!

    Every time I tell my mother I've finished another draft, she worries that I've edited the life out of my story.

    Every time she worries at me, I admit that the story is So Much Better. It's stronger and I've replaced the rotted boards. I've tightened the screws. I've repainted, and it looked 100Xs better.

    Go you! It's awesome to see what our stories can grow into.

    Like

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