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.


Joylene Nowell Butler said...

The short answer... you dive headfirst into your version, you create characters you adore, characters you hate to leave, you sweat, cry, rage, and voila, your story, though a product of you taking an old story and making it yours, turns out to be fresh and original.

You understand the difference, moi ami? Your heart and soul is in your story and that instantly makes it inspiration and not imitation.

Because every story since the Greeks is a copy of someone else story. Every theme you can think of has been done a thousand times before.

Vastine Bondurant said...

Exactly, Joylene!
In fact, didn't I read somewhere that there are really only a small handful of original stories...that everything out there is a theme on another theme...or something like that.

But you're right. Your HEART is what makes it yours. I love that.


Faith said...

It has been said over and over that there are no stories that haven't been told in one form or another, that everything is part of a collective consciousness.

Vastine Bondurant said...

I believe that, Faith.

It's just our own personalizing the planted seed that makes it uniquely our own.

The possibilities are infinite. I love that.