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.

Fleeting, Lovely

Twitter Code Swarm from Ben Sandofsky on Vimeo.

What you have just witnessed was a code swarm. When a programmer writes code, it is saved in a file. As developers complete tasks, they check in their files, ‘commiting’ them to a repository. Each commit is a historical data point linking the file and the person who changed the file. The animated code swarm is a visualization of that historical data. This is an overly simplistic explanation, but hits the points that matter for the following discussion.

When I watch a code swarm, I’m overcome by existential wonder. I don’t see files or code. I see humanity.

The swarm is a visual representation of the interconnectedness between the developers who shared those files. Their common creative pursuit linked them in ways both beautiful and fleeting. Developers zoom onto the screen, take a central role as files orbit around them. They bob nearer or farther other developers, swapping files, sometimes appearing to be like binary stars breathing each other’s life force. Then, just as unpredictably, they separate. Every now and then, a developer departs the field of vision, their work on that ecosystem done. Their files stay, building new links between the developers who remain. The footsteps of each contributor are stored in the commit history and their voices stay in the code base, echoes of the past. The code swarm is an artifact not so much of programming, but of the very human act of collaboration.

When I watch a code swarm, I am prompted to visualize my life. I picture the various stages of it and the people who would have been influential. My swarm would start with only a few actors: Mo, Poppy, me. Then my sister would join us, and there would be four of us connected by shared habitation, experience, and name. When I went to college, my icon would fly farther from the others, and new friends and professors would gather around me. Sometime in my junior year, Mr. Aniko and I gravitate to one another and here we are still, a universe of two. Thinking of my life swarm makes me realize how tenuous and circumstantial most relationships are. When someone zooms out of my frame of reference, I am left with less than files and timestamps. I’m left with imperfect memory. I’m left with sweet melancholia and an awareness of the fleeting nature of most situational friendships.

Perhaps this is why I love books. In them, relationships never end. If someone zooms off the screen, I need only go back a few pages to have them back again, exactly as they were and without any of the fuzzy imperfection of my own mental camera. There is a permanence that is heartening, a good swift kick to the devouring maw of time and entropy. There is definite order and complete crystallization; the lives in books are, in that sense, more solid than the ones you and I are living.

Yet books don’t exist in vacuums. They are their own universe. They talk to each other, conversing across centuries, language divides, and cultural differences. Allusion is magic. Stolen Climates talks to Calvino’s The Agentine Ant, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish. It is homage and a recognition that I do not come first and could not have built what I did without their precedent. I am honored by my timeless meeting of those authors, just as much as I am honored by the people I have met at school, work, or on this blog. We are a perfect and fleeting ecosystem.

Be thankful, but without any grasping at that which must pass away. Experience the perfection of the friendships you have now. Don’t put off that lunch with your co-workers because time is fast and soon, you’ll be just people who used to work together. Oh, you can LinkedIn and Facebook ad infinitum, but life’s not like a book. You can’t just turn back a few pages and restore the connection you had. You have this moment, this day, these people. Go to them.

This post is dedicated to Mr. Aniko, my husband of eleven years and my best friend for fourteen. I love you, Mr. Aniko! You are my perfect other.

The Adventure of a Writer Reading

vino drinker seeks good read.

Image via Wikipedia

In the novel IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER, Italo Calvino writes about a woman who is a pure reader. The act of being immersed in a story is the totality of the experience for the pure reader. According to her, “There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other side those that read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends…”. Later in IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT, Calvino introduces a writer who echoes the pure reader’s sentiment, saying “Since I have become a slave laborer of writing, the pleasure of reading has finished for me.” In Calvino veritas, indeed!

A writer reads to learn how to write. The psychological distance presupposed by the act of analysis is what makes it difficult for a writer to be a pure reader. To be a writer is to inherently dull the ability to read for reading’s sake.

This doesn’t mean that being a pure reader is impossible for writers, just that they’ll have to be reading an incredibly well-written work to get into that zone. Even then, once the afterglow of the read wears off, the writer will be picking through passages to try and understand how it’s possible that a story as seemingly bloated as Joyce’s THE DEAD can deliver such an emotional climax. Works of lesser quality do not even transport the writer; she will observe the story rather than be absorbed by it. The analytical chatterbox in her mind will note every infraction of grammar, characterization, and symbolism. More egregious than badly written books are books where the author makes the decision to include heavy-handed metafiction or some other self-conscious and purposefully precious element. Authors who do that break the sacred contract with the reader by eliminating any chance at the transcendental experience of becoming a pure reader. I’m with Calvino’s pure reader. All we want is to read a novel that “pile[s] stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you.”

We want to be absorbed, subsumed, enraptured.

It has already been two years since my last experience as a pure reader. The book? AFFINITY, by Sarah Waters. I was skeptical at first because I tend to find books written in diary format to be too contrived to enthrall me. However, Waters’s writing is amazing, and AFFINITY had enough supernatural, sexual, and mysterious elements to keep me coming back, despite my initial reluctance. I read the end on a lunch break; I was sitting in the kitchen at work, seething with emotions. Fury. Betrayal. Horror. Stupidity. Shock. Sadness. The sense of having been used. I was gasping for breath and in tears – in the company lunch room. I didn’t care. In fact, because Waters did her job very, very well, I became a pure reader. There is no lunch room or co-workers for the pure reader. There is only the story.

AFFINITY had serious wow-factor. I was awed, and not certain that there was any place left for novels to go, since perfection had already been achieved. Then the writer in me took charge. She decided that what the world needs are more books like AFFINITY. She started the analysis. She sent the pure reader packing.

What about you, when was the last time you experienced being a pure reader? What book did it for you? The holiday vacations are coming up, and I would love, Love, LOVE to have to have a stack of juicy reads!

  • All quotes are from the 1981 Harcourt Brace & Company (Harvest Book imprint) edition of IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT A TRAVELER.
  • I cannot take credit for my the phrase ‘In Calvino Veritas;’ that’s all over the web.