Musings: On Originality, Inspiration, and Unintentional Frankensteining

It was a warm, dense day in April when I realized that for two years, the novel project I’d been working on was not truly my own. I had been struggling for months to find the inspiration to continue writing, going through brief spurts of energy, revamping the entire plot before again losing interest among my myriad other commitments. I couldn’t understand why this story, which had interested me for so long, was getting worse and worse even as my prose skills were rapidly increasing.

Then it dawned on me: it wasn’t my story.

I know the various theories, that there are only seven stories, or thirty-six, or one. I’ve heard that every story that can be told has been told. I know that West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet, that even Shakespeare stole from Chaucer and that Chaucer stole from Boccaccio and classic myth. All telling is retelling and all that. I’ve been told in writing classes that what changes is simply the way the story is told, the presentation, the word choice, the voice.

I don’t buy it. At least, not completely. When you break a story down to its constituent elements, there are two major layers: language and plot. To break plot down even further, there are only two elements of that: tension and release. These are what make art great. Music builds and swells and escalates your heart rate only to come crashing together in a sigh, a cadence that allows you to regain composure and reset. But like binary code, two ingredients can compound to make vastly different works. Two cells can make a living being.

The problem comes when the similarities between your story and others are on a much larger scale than tension and release. My novel wasn’t a shimmering layer of language set atop the skeleton of some ancient, primal structure. It wasn’t a retelling, or a subversion. It was a monster, stitched together from books and movies and TV shows I liked, borrowing major motifs, character profiles, plot elements. I wasn’t rearranging the thirteen tones all Western musicians have to work with. I was cutting from Dvořák to Tchaikovsky to Wagner and back in whole chunks.

Once I had realized this, it became easy to see why my writing was losing steam, easy to understand how this had happened. In appreciating other art, attempting to recreate the wonder those works inspired in me, I accidentally wound up recreating the stories themselves, or at least cheap facsimiles.

To quote T. S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

I had fallen into the trap of defacing. It was disguised by pretty words, darlings I still struggle with killing, turns of phrase I’ll likely recycle into later works if I have appropriate occasion to do so. But it was defacing all the same.

In one of the hardest decisions of my writing life, I set the project aside. It’s all saved somewhere so that I can go back to it someday with a clearer head, but as of right now I’m novel-less, and a little unmoored. I’m still in a strange haze coming down from that fictional world I spent so much time in. But this break is for the better. I’ve been focusing on short fiction, and I definitely feel my prose strengthening. I’ve experimented with poetry and nonfiction, and liked what I’ve discovered. And I can feel another novel churning in the nebulous horizons of my mind, just wisps of something now: a snatch of a character here, a glance of a deserted street there, the whisper of magic in the shadows. Nothing has coalesced, yet, but there’s still time to be had and research to be done and life to be lived in the meantime. I’ll just have to be a little more careful what books I read when I’m plotting and planning next.

Musings: A List of Questions…

This is a list of questions I compiled from an Instagram story poll, wherein I asked the young women I know to share questions that they have to consider which rarely occur to men. I have withheld the names of the submitters to protect their privacy, but I know their identities and can vouch that they are all real young women I know personally. These questions are listed in the order of submission.

The questions on the list range from relatively light-hearted (e.g. Question 53: Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?) to anguished (e.g. Question 63: What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know? and Question 64: If it happens again, am I partially responsible?) though notably more of the questions are on the heavier end of the scale. Of particular interest to me was Question 60: Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real? This is a phenomenon I have experienced, in which an instance of harassment/assault is committed by someone who is usually kind, or someone who is greatly apologetic after the fact, to the point that such harmful rhetoric or action from the perpetrator seems entirely uncharacteristic. We live in a world where it is easier for women to change their memories than to confront the problems posed by men in their lives.

It is important to acknowledge that the questions on this list do not exclusively apply to women, but occur more often to women than to men. Many of these questions were submitted by able-bodied, heterosexual, white women and as such do not reflect the even greater intersections that women of color, LGBT women, and disabled women must deal with on a regular basis. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics), a nonprofit that seeks to inform the public about sexual violence and ways to prevent it, “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives,” and “one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime”. These rates are significantly higher for minority groups of all forms, and “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old”. I encourage you to follow the link and read more statistics about sexual violence.

To bring this back to a more personal scale, every single respondent is someone I know personally, ranging from about age 16 to about age 20. Every one of these women has experienced sexual violence or knows someone who has. It is a fear that follows women regularly, both consciously and subconsciously, as we navigate a world that seeks to silence us, a world where victims are threatened further when they do come forward. The purpose of this list is to present to you plainly the ways this fear is made manifest in our daily thoughts and behaviors, and to make it concrete to those of you who do not experience this fear.

I do not have a solution to the epidemic of sexual violence plaguing not only the US, but the world. I do not know, or claim to know, any way to calm these fears in my own mind, or to protect my friends. I know, however, that I have to live every day knowing that my former Girl Scout troop leader was murdered in January of 2018 by her former partner. I carry with me the rapes of at least three of my closest friends, the harassment and assaults faced by countless more, the knowledge of my small body and inability to fight back if my life depended on it. I carry with me tears and hugs, support and shame, and always, always questions.

And to those asking why I’m sharing this on my blog which up until this point has only included my creative content, my answer is twofold. First, it makes an excellent companion for a nonfiction piece I’m posting later this week, which received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke this year. And second, I think these questions tell a number of important stories of their own. With that in mind, the list begins here:

  1. Is it safer for me to give him my contact information and hope he never uses it, or to turn him down and hope he doesn’t get angry?
  2. Are we just going in the same direction or is he following me?
  3. Do I take the short way home that’s poorly lit, or the well-lit route that adds on a lot of extra time and distance?
  4. If things go wrong when I say no, am I closer to the exit or is he?
  5. If I called out right now, would anyone hear? Would anyone care?
  6. If I report him, would anyone believe me?
  7. Do I need to borrow my friend’s pepper spray to walk back to my dorm if it’s just barely after midnight, the path is well-lit, and it’s a five minute walk?
  8. Is he joking or am I in danger?
  9. This makes me uncomfortable, but if I say something about it will he take it the wrong way and overreact?
  10. If I speak up, will it hurt my career?
  11. If I speak up, will it hurt my social life?
  12. If I speak up, will he hurt me physically?
  13. Is he really my friend or is he just “playing the long game” and going to freak out when I tell him I’m not interested in being more than friends?
  14. Is this old guy being friendly because he’s just a nice old man, or should I be leaving right now?
  15. I’ve told him no in every way I can think of, including gently, firmly, and with profanity, but he still doesn’t get it—how do I make him just leave me alone?
  16. What is the best response to have when I hear about someone I considered a friend harassing women?
  17. Is it my responsibility to correct the way this person inappropriately acts?
  18. Will I be unsafe if I do?
  19. Will I be complicit if I don’t?
  20. If I accidentally make eye contact and smile, will it be considered an invitation?
  21. Should I avoid wearing this cute dress because it will draw unwanted attention?
  22. Why has this boy I have barely met latched onto me as someone to share personal information/struggles with?
  23. If I tell him to stop, am I mean?
  24. Will he lash out at me?
  25. Will he tell others I am unkind?
  26. If I don’t stop him, will he only grow a stronger sense that I am someone he should turn to?
  27. Can I no longer show simple kindness/politeness to strangers because it makes them latch onto inappropriately?
  28. Should I be doing more? If something happens will people say it’s my fault?
  29. Is carrying my keys like Wolverine claws too much? Or is it just a safety precaution?
  30. Will I be safe walking upstairs to ask the floor above me to stop partying at 3 am?
  31. Am I safe at this coffee shop with a 30 year old man hitting on me and touching me uncomfortably?
  32. Should I not try to leave because I’m not sure anyone will help me if he tries to go further?
  33. If I leave will he follow me?
  34. Do I trust this male friend to walk me to my car? Should I find someone else?
  35. Wait, why did I just say I’m sorry?
  36. Am I okay letting my male boss drive me somewhere?
  37. My friend and I are sharing a cab/Uber/Lyft, should I spend extra so she can get out first and be safer?
  38. Is it safe for me to give this man directions, or is he using that as an excuse to follow me?
  39. Why do women feel obligated to help male strangers even when it inconveniences them?
  40. Over half of all rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Am I really safe with my friends, family, and partners?
  41. What do I do if a guy gives me unwanted compliments while I’m at work (in the hospitality industry)?
  42. Is the way he’s touching me creepy or platonic?
  43. Does it matter if I’m uncomfortable?
  44. Can I give this male acquaintance a ride? I know it’s cold, but am I safe?
  45. Does the man I’d be alone on this elevator with if I take it seem nonthreatening?
  46. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I don’t want sex?
  47. Will I be safe if I say no?
  48. Will I be wanted in a relationship if I have a physical challenge that prevents me from having sex at all, or at least without pain?
  49. Would I be creeped out by this action if a woman did it?
  50. If I wouldn’t, is it still valid to be creeped out when a man does it?
  51. Why am I so used to men being unapologetic that when they are kind, respectful, and apologetic after an incident, part of me feels bad for calling them out in the first place?
  52. Is it safe to meet up with someone I met through a dating app?
  53. Why does this male author writing a female character describe her boobs so much?
  54. Is the trauma of reliving my assault in a trial worth the slight chance my attacker sees consequences?
  55. Did it count as rape if he didn’t seem to know he was raping me?
  56. Why do I keep making excuses for my attacker?
  57. Will wearing headphones in public keep me safe from harassment and unwanted conversations, or put me at more risk of not hearing potential assailants?
  58. Why do women on TV and in movies excuse abusive/stalkery behavior just because the male lead is attractive?
  59. Is love an excuse to put up with abuse?
  60. Why do I constantly gaslight myself about whether what’s happening is real?
  61. Do I have to forgive something unforgivable just because he said sorry?
  62. What do I do if he knows personal information about me that he could use against me?
  63. What do I do about the guy who raped my friend if she doesn’t want anyone to know?
  64. Is it partially my fault if it happens again?