One minute we’re knee deep in vampires and the next it’s as though this Zombie Craze will never end. Then suddenly we are awash in werewolves and Paranormal numbers at the box office. It seems – well – uncanny. But really it isn’t; that’s genre shift and is a perfectly normal, albeit direct result of the miscommunication of publishers who imply by their marketing strategies that they want the exact same story to issue as competition for the latest bestseller. Writers “hear” that publishers want “another Dean Koontz” or their “own Stephen King clone.” But what publishers mean to say is that they “want” something that explodes the genre with a fresh and innovative spin, written at least as well as the current bestsellers and with enough author star power to warrant all the marketing necessary to “make” a bestseller. They want to compete.
Synchronicity is another animal altogether…Because synchronicity is the uncanny. Synchronicity is that eerie coincidence that happens when two seemingly unrelated actions result in the same event at the same moment in time. If it hasn’t selected you personally yet, all you have to do is open your eyes to see it in play. It is everywhere and all at once.
Synchronicity has found a special home in the arts. For a test drive, take a look at the syndicated cartoon page of your local paper (if you still have one). On a typical day, you will find at least two cartoons that are almost identical in theme. Yet what are the odds that two cartoonists living in different cartoonist zones hundreds of miles apart and locked in creative mode in isolated studios would draw the same thing on the same day? Why did two separate editors approve it? Or two separate publishers approve it for the same day’s run?
Synchronicity also happens with freaky regularity in fiction writing (another reason to not sit on that story but submit it like a mad hatter). Throughout publishing you will find deuces of titles, plotlines, character names, and endings that are too ironically timed to be contrived. Some make it to the bookstore just like a pair of debutantes wearing the same dress. One inevitably outsells the other, and whichever comes in second becomes a “copycat.”
So what is really happening here? Why do we sometimes arrive at the same conclusions simultaneously and write the same darn story? There are theories…
Famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung first coined the term synchronicity in 1955. A historical figure one is not accustomed to thinking would be an inquirer into all things paranormal (an assumption in which one would be sadly mistaken), Jung was so smitten by the concept that he actually wrote an entire book’s worth of dissertations, letters and essays – some of which are collected in Jung on Synchronicity and the Paranormal: Key Readings Selected and Introduced by Roderick Main and (available in print and e-reader format from Routledge, UK c1997, 2005). According to Main, Jung spent a great deal of his professional time and energy tooling around paranormal circles of the day, probing and analyzing exactly how and why things seem to happen the way that they do. In the introduction, Main states that a culmination of Jung’s “lifelong engagement with the paranormal” resulted in his much criticized Theory of Synchronicity which incorporates a principle of “acausal connection” most often recognized as “meaningful coincidence.” This theory has found a surprising amount of acceptance in his field of psychotherapy, as well as with parapsychologists and a whole garden variety of non-specialists smitten with the concept. It represents (according to Main) one of the more significant attempts to make such details of the paranormal “intelligible.”
The theory itself was rooted in Jung’s own paranormal experiences, which then bloomed during his observations from psychoanalytic sessions that emphasized the symbolism inherent in acts of synchronicity and their power to transform those who experience such events. Coincidences have what Jung ascribed as an “irrational regularity” which garners our attention and exists outside of man, rooted in human consciousness instead of the individual. With quantum physics starting to enter the historical theater at the time, ideas like complementarity and probability only fanned the flames. So when the theory was unveiled in 1951, it basically stated that there is a certain amount of “unconscious content” floating about the physics world which contain items of “absolute knowledge” which “transcend space-time limitations of consciousness”; the recognition of which (when occurring with tandem physical events) is comprehended as synchronicity. (No spirits, just archetypes and math.) Said Jung, “Synchronism is the prejudice of the east; causality is the prejudice of the west.”
According to Rita Durant, author of a thought-provoking article titled “Synchronicity: a Post-Structuralist Guide to Creativity and Change” (Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 15 no. 5, 2002, pp. 490-501), synchronicity itself emphasizes the “paradox of time” in which our inner and outer beings seem esoterically linked. These events, according to Durant make us feel connected as human beings to each other and something greater. She states that synchronicity is where serendipity of the “happy accident” meets a prepared mind and is interpreted as a symbolic event with a different “directionality” from those occurrences we perceive as normal. Neither of these positions can then successfully separate the voodoo of creative writing from theory. Creativity has the same dependence on chance in common with synchronicity according to Durant. And it is this very point that makes synchronicity in writing a maddening, mystical event.
For many of us, the process of writing has long held a magical quality. We have our superstitions and rituals in order to coax the Muse from the hidden corners of the subconscious. When she is whispering in our ears we feel somehow “chosen” and “special” – like conspirators in a great and secret show. So when a story comes back to us marked “not original enough” or we see the same story published somewhere else with someone else’s name on it, the shock is quite stunning; the lover’s intimacy is broken. The betrayal is profound. Who are you? we hiss under our breath, And how long have you been sleeping with my Muse?
Yet this happens often enough that we have to wonder if those who speculate that there are indeed only three real plots in the world are in fact correct. We have to wonder at the possibility that humanity is really not all that brilliant, that we have certain creative limitations – or that the Creator has simply hedged His bets and guaranteed that certain ideas will in fact have their time. Who can say for certain?
I only know that there is a very real sense of having missed an opportunity when something I planned did not get written but shows up elsewhere. I only know that I have a file drawer for those synchronistic ideas and stories that now have to collect dust until I can figure out how to make them not-plagiarism. Like many fiction writers, I don’t intentionally write like anyone else. I read popular works, historic genre works and fine literature to improve my understanding of the art of writing. I don’t have affairs with other people’s Muses. But it helps to know that I am not alone as a victim of Muse infidelity. In fact, if the idiosyncrasies of slush piles is to be believed, it’s kind of proof of even more synchronicity, don’t you think?