Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Only Until Forever...But After That...

“We'll be Friends Forever, won't we, Pooh?' asked Piglet.
Even longer,' Pooh answered.”  --  A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

One morning before daylight, I pulled into the parking lot at my office and there---curled in a ball against the gate----lay a dog.

I got out of the car to open the gate and the timid critter only ventured away from that spot long enough for me to unlock and open the gate. I noticed, as soon as I passed through the entrance, he returned to his spot and curled back into his little cocoon---only now, with the gate open, he was all balled up in the middle of the driveway. Worried for his safety in that dangerous spot, I tried to shoo him away. He would forfeit his little nesting area; but, no sooner had I turned my back, he went right back.

I worried about the little canine all morning and kept checking out the window to monitor his whereabouts. Sure enough, he remained close to that spot. For at least four hours. An example of dogged determination if I ever saw one.

One of my co-workers, watching him with me, commented, "Someone has dumped him off here. He's sitting there, waiting for them to come back for him."

My heart broke.

I realized my co-worker was right. Loyal and trusting---and knowing no better---the pup knew nothing more than to wait for masters who were never coming to get him. At the spot where they left him so they wouldn't miss him when they returned.

Finally, later in the day, a pang of sadness---empty, strange and inexplicable---surged through me when I realized the abandoned dog had finally vacated his station at the gate. He had finally realized no one was going to come back for him and he had moved on. He was now thrown into the population of strays whose owners had decided there was no place for him any longer in their lives.

This week, it occurred to me just why this scenario troubled me so.

In the time I decided to pursue my writing professionally, I've made many friends---most of them on the Internet.

As a child reared in a close-knit unit, surrounded by a small but loving circles of friends and family, I only knew one kind of friendship: the forever, through-thick-and-thin, come-hell-or-high-water, we're-in-this-together kind. And, to date, most of these relationships have endured everything life has thrown at them.

But I'm naive, I wrap myself around what feels good and hold on like a tree branch in a raging rapids. Such has been the way with my Internet friendships.

I'd never allowed myself to think, even for a second, that they could actually pull loose and drift away in that rapids. One for all and all for one, right? Forever, sisters, brothers, friends. Bonds made.

I was wrong.

Fortunately, I don't suppose I can say I've had any traumatic partings from friends. I see it happen all the time in cyber space; but I've been lucky enough to just have soft 'driftings' apart. And I've also been lucky that most of the bonds formed are still there. Kind of invisible now, but still there.

But loss is loss. I've---oh, I'm embarrassed to admit this---for the longest time, was like that dog. I saw friends fading away, sort of grasped that the friendships had run their cyber courses; but still waited at that proverbial gate for them to come back and re-ignite that spark. They didn't. We've all been there---where we try to keep the ember fanned, we email, we post on Facebook to hold on to them, we just doggedly try.

Before you say it, let me assure you that I have been on the other end of it all. I've found myself floating away on a broken-off hunk of iceberg, father and farther from some friends. There were times it was ME who cut off the connection or allowed it to disintegrate. Never intentionally, it just happened.

And, yes, I'm a big girl. Get over it, right? Right. Life does indeed move on. New friendships have formed, and they are just as good, just as important, just as rewarding and fulfilling.

True, true. But my problem? Just as in my cozy youth, I somehow allowed myself to depend on the circle of friendship as a sort of fortress for confidence in my writing. I'd become used to this little unit to bolster my courage, to mentor, to cheer me on. And that, my friend, is good and well. But, when the time does come for that support to collapse, what's left? A scared, terribly insecure writer who's standing---trembling---under this fallen structure without the confidence to get out from under the rubble and make it on her own.

I see now that I've maybe relied too heavily on that support and not enough on my own strengths. I see now that the ropes holding that little support raft can come quickly unraveled on the business of the cyber rapids. And, hell, this writer needs to learn to swim!

Hey, it's not the friends who are to blame. They've done what friends do. Befriended. Supported. Cheered. Taught. But life is life, and all good things really can come to an end. And when that end rolls around, I find myself lost and looking for those outside voices---not my own internal voices---to tell me I can do this. That I can write.

I panic.

A fellow author told me once that I seemed to need that outside support, that I did not seem to have the confidence to just...write...without someone egging me on, assuring me. And he was right, I see that now. In some ways, my cyber socializing has crippled more than it has bolstered. And it has been my fault for depending (hate to overuse that word, but it is so fitting) so much on outside validation instead of on my own.

I freeze when plotting, when assigning traits to characters. Instead of listening to the characters as I should, instead of trusting my own judgement with plotting, I must confer with author friends to confirm my ideas are on the right track. Without that feedback, I can't seem to move on my own.

Deep down inside myself, I think I'm a good writer, I have potential talent. But the sooner I learn that for myself and learn to build it---brick by brick---on my own, I'll be better off.

I need to be like the dog at the gate. I need to realize, Okay, I'm on my own. I need to fend for myself. The puppy, by nature, will be able to forge his own new path. His support factor has left him and is not coming back. He has no choice but to go it alone.

I'm not built to be in complete solitude, I need friends. But I CANNOT depend completely on them for my own confidence.

So maybe, just maybe, I can keep a proper perspective on just how much to lean on friendships for support, but not as a replacement for self-confidence. Maybe just enough for them to gently nudge me and say---as I try to navigate on my own raft---as Milne also said in Winnie-the-Pooh, Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Inspiration. Imitation. Creativity..?

I've had something on my mind, and I kept thinking I wanted to blog about it. But when I DID sit down and try to write my feelings, I found it was more of a question in my head than something I could actually expound on with the pretense of knowing what the hell I was talking about.

Then I stumbled on this quote from Dan Vylete, An original writer is one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.

And my question is this. Where do you draw the line between inspiration and imitation?

So you see a story you like. You feel you could write it yourself, maybe throw in some variables and maybe even make it better. So you take the story's exact dynamics and just weave them into your own version. I.E., setting, date, details—just take out the original characters and throw in your own. Piece o' cake.

When this happens, is it flattery to the original author? Does one even think about the original author?

Wait, I know what you’re thinking. No, I'm not talking about 50 Shades of Grey. I’m not even talking about plagiarism.

I’m talking about something that is not dishonest. Not illegal.

Something quite common. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

I’ve even heard tales of publishers who scout other publisher’s work to get ideas, then commission their own staffs to mimic. This is probably legitimate. No harm, I figure. Not innovative, though, and certainly no gold stars for originality, either.

I suppose, if I were the original author—if my work was unique in any way, if it was something I loved, literally lived and breathed it—I'd be ecstatic that it was taken seriously enough for someone to want to recreate some form of it. Depending, I guess, on just how many parallels there were to my work.

Once, with one of my very first stories, a young man who read and critiqued for me was so taken with my story and the characters, he warned me he might just do his own version of it, to see what he came up with. He joked that he would be my first 'fanfic'.

Of course, as brilliant and talented as he was, I felt good old fashioned fear because I knew he could do it much better than I could. He was an experienced writer, I was not. That beautiful vision which had been mine for so long would—if he borrowed it—become his. No one would ever know where his idea had originated, who the true birth parent had been. But, nonetheless, how could I not have been flattered by the fact someone thought my creation was good enough to even consider using. Good enough to inspire another to build his own foundation on. (Not the writing, mind you, but the concept, the characters).

However, if my work had been published first, he would have been taking the chance that his own production would smell of copy cat. It might even have knocked his reputation for originality down a couple of notches, depending on just how similar his own creation was to mine. He might have been perceived to sing the song from the musical, Anything you can do, I can do better. Would he have cared? Probably not.

I, for one, see so many wonderful stories—concepts, characters, settings—I stay in a constant state of Why didn’t I think of that? I’m inspired by them. I’m inspired by the sheer quality of many stories, by the emotions they evoke in me, by the worlds I’m drawn into by the mastery and talent of the authors. Most of all, by the originality of the characters. So, from experience, I can assure you how easy and tempting it is to borrow what one sees.

As much as I cherish the world I’m inspired to write—the world which exists in my stories, Purly Gates for instance—I’m thrilled when I see others who have gone before me in this sub-genre, and just as thrilled to see those I’ve inspired to follow me. Why? Because I love the world within them, and long to see it appreciated with hopes of it expanding and becoming more recognized.

That brings me back to the original question.

Put the shoe on the other writer’s foot. How far would you go to recreate another author’s story? How much of its likeness could you borrow before crossing the line from inspiration to imitation? If you are motivated to recreate some or all of what you’ve read, what is your motivation? A pure, simple, genuine love for the idea? Does it stir something in you, does it make you want to dive into that world yourself and experience it in your own words? If so, wonderful. Go for it, give it all you have. Please, though, at least try to give it your own fingerprint. To reproduce it too exactly is simply…well, a remake, a reproduction.

Or do you recognize the potential in something that was successful and see it as an avenue for yourself? Is it simply a case of a competitive spirit? Hey, that’s fine, too, I suppose. In my own experience, it merely produces a flat image of my goal, and my insincerity—driven merely by competitiveness—is apparent.

No matter what the motivation, no matter where the idea sprang from, one thing is true. There is a secret to carrying it off, to making it your very own, to making it unique with no traces of anyone else’s voice. And the secret is this: The best stories, the best characters—the ones that reach out and touch readers, that readers relate to and cherish—are the ones written from the heart. The stories written out of passion for the subject, for the characters.

Maybe that thing you and I see in other author’s work---that thing that inspires us---is their passion. That we cannot copy. Just as we have our own fingerprints, our own individual DNA, we can't recreate someone else's passion and make it our own. For a writer, their passion and love IS their personal literary DNA.

I found this quote by Martin Heidegger, and it sort of imparted (for me, anyway) an idea of what writing when inspired by another's work should amount to, The great thinker is one who can hear what is greatest in the work of other "greats" and who can transform it in an original manner. So, bottom line: be a great thinker. Gather inspiration from others, but...well, you get the picture. And the key word is think. For ourselves. And feel the story for ourselves. Getting an idea from another? We might can grow a story from another's seedling. The passion to cultivate it into our own unique tale? That has to be ours.

Because as Ella Wheeler Wilcox said, A poor original is better than a good imitation.