Inspiration/Appropriation?

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (Photo credit: MariamMAM)

I just finished a second read of Wintering, a novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses. Wintering is written in a Plath-like voice, about a Plath-like character going through Plath-like tragedy. The protagonist is even named Sylvia Plath, and the characters she interacts with bear the names of other real people, but Wintering is not presented as a biography. It is copyrighted as a fiction that portrays real people. Wintering is beautifully written, and has a symbolic form that serves to emphasize the imbalance of emotions experienced by the Sylvia character. Yet I don’t love it. In fact, Wintering leaves me – well, cold. There is a lot of Plath by Plath, and her journals are a mainline into her consciousness at the time of the events fictionalized by Moses. There is no need for a secondary source:  Plath speaks for herself.

Wintering reminded me of a craft exercise I completed early in my writing career. My exercise was inspired by an event rumored to have occurred Plath’s life, and emulated the plot structure used in a short story by Rick DeMarinis. Is my craft exercise an example of inspiration, or a case of appropriating from not one, but two sources?

Everything I have written is influenced by all that I’ve read, watched, or experienced. Stolen Climates owes its existence to my exposure to Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, and the B-movie, Food of the Gods. I leveraged Calvino’s theme of a family faced with a seemingly innocuous yet unconquerable natural enemy. I deliberately chose to pay homage to Jackson’s wonderfully neurotic character who, like Prentice Feyerback of Stolen Climates, starts the journey into darkness with nothing except hope and a car. I certainly took the B-movie idea of Nature growing out of control and put that to use. I like to think of these things as being “inspired by” rather than “appropriated from,” but how different is what I did than what Moses did with Wintering? Where is the boundary between inspiration and appropriation?

Perhaps the boundary has less to do with subject than with impact. I believe Wintering could have gone farther in the examination of a damaged woman trying to repair herself if it were pure fiction. In a fiction, Moses could have taken us right up to the moment when the character took her last breath. As a fictionalization of real events, though, doing so would have been crass. Moses didn’t cross that line, but in a sense, that’s one of the things that bothers me: as a story teller, Moses didn’t deliver the hard truths. She couldn’t, because she was writing a fictionalized reality, not writing fiction.

I want the books I read to have guts. I want them to go into the hidden recesses of humanity’s darkest secrets and root around for the element of truth. I want to see the darkness in order to guard myself from it. I expect a skilled author to make me understand true desperation, and do so with a steady hand and lack of sentimentality. No one with a conscience can do that when writing about a real person, and perhaps that is the marker of appropriation. When a life story is appropriated, there are certain things that will be off limits. Fiction can reveal truths, but only if the writer is willing to press beyond the boundaries of reality and into the realm of inspiration – no matter how dark the path.

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4 thoughts on “Inspiration/Appropriation?

  1. Wow. I normally wait till the weekend before I am able to respond to posts, but this one was truly an interesting read. Now, right from the go I have to admit I have never read anything by Kate Moses. So as far as having an opinion or a critique of her work that I cannot offer. What was interesting was a review of the work packed with literary analysis and personal thoughts. All of which I totally agree. Books provide something in their medium few forms of art (if none at all) can truly offer and that is the unique gift of getting inside the mind and soul of character. Which by default leads us to want to know more, see more about the character than we would normally know. The writing should go beyond “so-how-about-the-weather” to something quite more. If anything the reader should know there’s more to be had, even if the story/writer/character is not revealing it, because that’s what this medium deals with, the personal.

    • Matt, hi! I have only read Wintering, and that was published some years ago. Moses has a lot of talent, and I’d love to see a book written in her voice (not a Plath-like one), that tells her story (not Plath’s). I bet it would be a great book.

      I agree that books, more than movies or any other media, can give us access to the internal workings of another consciousness. It is so different to be inside a mind, rather than just watching it from the outside (as we do in most other media). There can be some very difficult, very dark truths to face there, though, and I was disappointed that Wintering flinched right at the point where it should have looked closer. I understand why Moses chose to do that, and I agree with the decision. I guess what I don’t understand is the decision to appropriate an entire, already told story and retell it without adding too many new insights. A wholly different story with echoes of the Plath experience probably would have been more satisfying.

      Hope you’re having a good week!

    • Thank you. I struggled with this one. The writing is wonderful, and there were some blow-away good scenes. Yet Wintering felt hollow because I’ve read Plath’s journals, and no matter how good someone is, it’s going to be hard for them to top the authenticity and raw power of Plath talking about Plath. And then I wondered if I am not, to some degree, guilty of some level of appropriation. I call it inspiration, but where is the line?

      Ahh, the pitfalls of thinking!

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