Friday, July 17, 2009

This Day

Ok, so first, on this day I was born, yup, my birthday. I like birthdays. I don't have a hang-up about age, it seems to me that life gets better and better, and I have no idea what the year might bring but I look forward to it all! This is a quiet birthday, which suits me fine, that's just where I am right now. It's been a hell of a year, ups and downs, so a quiet day making birthday cupcakes and being with J and the cats. Lovely.

This day is also How Publishing Really Works' Anti-Plagiarism Day, with writers and bloggers across the blogsphere drawing attention to this topic, giving their experiences and their thoughts. Because it is my birthday I don't want to dwell on my recent and distressing experience of being plagiarised, but I want to talk about being inspired by someone else's writing.

As synchronicity would have it, over at Nik's blog is a great interview with Shaindel Beers, poet and fellow Salt author, whose wonderful collection, A Brief History of Time, I mentioned here. She says the following:

Nik: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?

Shaindel: My former colleague at College of Lake County, Larry Starzec (a phenomenal writer, please find his work) would tell his students, “Writers read with larceny in their hearts.” He’s right. Any time you read and find something that knocks your socks off, think how can I steal that? (Of course, meaning, how can I do that?)
This, for me, is the essence: You read something you love and you think: "How can I do that... in my own way? How can I be inspired by what this writer has done and employ that in the service of telling my story?"

I have this experience all the time when I review short story collections for The Short Review. One of the first collections I reviewed was Roy Kesey's All Over. As I said in my review:
Reading Roy Kesey's collection made me happy. Re-reading it soon after made me even happier. This is not because Kesey's stories are hopeful or optimistic. It is because this is a writer so clearly in love with language and rhythm that it is a delight to experience what he does with words – both those we are familiar with and those I suspect he invented.
What his stories did for me was show me what was possible in a short story - that it was possible, permissable, even highly desirable to write minimalist stories and make the reader work, sometimes very hard! Inspired, I "stole" this idea, this concept, and wrote a very minimalist 800-word story. This story, Vegetable, Mineral, won a flash fiction competition. I didn't take Roy's characters, I didn't lift his plots, I didn't copy his structure or his tone or his pacing. I "stole" something, though - something that perhaps he in turn had taken from a writer who inspired him. And what I took from Roy Kesey has stayed with me. If I hadn't read his book, perhaps I would have found this elsewhere - or perhaps my writing would have taken an entirely different direction.

Another example: when I was reviewing Paddy O'Reilly's collection, The End of the World, at the same time I was struggling with one of my stories that just was not working. I had been banging my head against this story for years, trying it this way and that, loving the premise but unable to find the right way to tell it. Then I read a story of Paddy's which is told in sections, each section with a subtitle - and something clicked. This was the way to tell my story. So I "lifted" the structure from Paddy's story and applied it to mine, and instantly something released in me, and I could write the story in a way that felt right, and which ended up surprising me.

I took from Paddy. I lifted structure - but if you put our stories side by side, I highly doubt that anyone would say, "Gosh, aren't these stories similar!" Because everything else about the stories is different: the subtitles themselves, the content, the characters, the voice, the story.

I had no thought at the time that Roy or Paddy might object - I was being inspired by them in a way that I would hope my writing might inspire. Their wonderful stories sent me in new directions, my own directions - their writing lifted me to a different place.

But... we must be careful. If I had taken more than this from their stories, if I had wandered over some invisible line, then this might be too much. Together with two writing colleagues, we have been stimulating ourselves to write by "borrowing" titles from other works and creating new works. We realised that if the title was too specific to that author, was recognisably theirs, then we would run into trouble. So we accept that after we've written the story or poem or whatever, we are going to have to change the title. We are allowed to be inspired, to let it take us places... but we are not allowed to take their creativity and pass it off as ours.

Reading is, to my mind, a vital part of the writing life. To imagine that we write in a vacuum is self-delusion: just as I am inspired by every street I walk down, every TV program I watch, every person I come into contact with, I am affected by everything I read. However, I have no desire to write someone else's story; I want to write what only I can write, given all my unique experiences, thoughts and impulses. I don't want to steal anyone else's story - what creative satisfaction lies in that?

So, the message of today is: be inspired. Always be inspired. But write your own story.


Nik Perring said...

Brilliantly put, Tania.

And happy birthday!!

Nik X

Sue Guiney said...

Well said, Tania. You make an important, key distinction. But I'm glad you're using today to focus on the wonderful parts of your life instead of this latest, nasty episode. Happy, happy, happy birthday! Sending hugs from across the pond. xo

Lauri said...

Because of some of my experiences with plagiarism (who knew that i was there after the g??) I am so cautious not to take anything from any writer I love. I was finished with my current novel, a thriller, about a mother who feeds her son to hyenas when a detective book came out written by some South African professors where they get rid of the body by feeding it to hyenas AND their detective is called Detective Kubu (my surname Kubuitsile). So many similarities scared me off for awhile, people might think somehow I copied. I've recovered and am back to working on it, but you can see how paranoid I am. (I've written a bit at my blog why) The line is oh so thin so I just try to stay far away from it.

Tania I would love to wish you happy birthday again but I've done so at Facebook and don't want to belabour the point. Enjoy your day.

Tania Hershman said...

Nik - thank you!
Sue, I'm glad i managed to focus on the positive too. Sending love back across the pond!

Lauri - it took me ages to be able to spell it! Ooh that is scary! But we can be as paranoid as we like and we can't prevent this kind of thing happening, to us and against us. Great and astonishing post on Nicola Morgan's blog about this.

Thanks for the birthday greetings!

Sarah Hilary said...

Happy Birthday, Tania! And I blogged something similar myself today, about inspiration. Including the inspiration your White Road brought to me. Many Happy Returns of the Day! xx

Sarah Salway said...

Happy birthday! Have some cake for me!!!

And I've blogged this too. An important issue. Who isn't terrified of it?

Jane Smith said...

Tania, very many happy birthday wishes from me to you today. And thank you for this elegant, generous post: it's lovely.

(By the way, if you read the post Nicola Morgan made today you might want to wonder who the plagiariser was who she didn't name... I don't think you'll have to think too hard to guess.)

Susannah Rickards said...

Happy Birthday T,

Sounds like you're having a lovely day.

Great post. You make a crucial distinction between plagiarism and inspirational sources.

Enjoy the rest of your day!


Debi said...

Happy birthday, Tania!

This post shows your generosity, understanding and determination to always see the light at the darkest of times.

Like your shortest of short stories, it speaks volumes.