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.