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.

Poem: Charybdis

If you told me you were the ocean I’d believe it,

    Until the tide came in and washed the color from your eyes.

           If I told you I was a mountain you’d laugh and say I’m five-foot-two.

                                                I swallowed the moon

                                    To pull you closer to me,

                        But you ebbed

            When I was waning

So here we are, separated by    so    much    sky.

            I heard you were a waterfall,

            A whirlpool, a torrent,

                        But I believe you are a leaf on the surface

                                    Of a stuck-still pond

                                   With overtaxed veins

                                                            And tender edges.

                                                                        People are quick

                                                            To label quiet men

                                                Mysteries.

                               I know better.

            We’ll build worlds together

                        And tear them down one island at a time,

                                                            Like pirate gods or monsoon spirits

                                                Still at odds,

                                                                 Because I chose the devil

                                                                      And you chose the deep black sea.

Fiction: Canary

When they told me they were getting a divorce, my parents took me to the pet store. I was thirteen by then, and had been waiting for them to figure out how to break the news for two years before they mustered up the nerve. I didn’t need a consolation. Practically none of my friends had married parents, so I knew what divorce really meant—two Christmases and fewer fights. I’d easily trade the mortgage for that. But if they were going to buy me a pet to make themselves feel better, I wasn’t going to stop them.

Dad was pushing the glow-in-the-dark fishes pretty heavily, because he didn’t want any animal that required him to scoop up shit. Mom wanted something cute and conventional that she could show off to her book club friends. I left them arguing by the poodles and went over to the cages where the hamsters and rats were kept.

I didn’t like the way they moved, the rodents, all jittery and anxious like they had coffee in their weird little straw-bottles instead of water. I wondered for a moment if that was something I could do, if I bought one. Get a rat hooked on caffeine and set it loose in the city.

Mom and Dad found me pretty quick, and Dad took one look at the rat and shot his eyebrows into his receding hairline. “What are you doing over here?” he asked, like he was begging me not to say I wanted a rat.

I didn’t, not really, so I made something up quick and pointed across the aisle at the chinchilla. “I think I might like one of those.”

Mom laughed. “That’s not a pet. That’s something you make coats out of.”

That stung a little, but I didn’t actually want a chinchilla so we moved on to the next aisle before they could start bickering again. We were surrounded now by birds, chirping and singing and cooing at one another, pecking at the bars. One was even hanging upside down from the top of its cage like a bat.

They all went quiet out of nowhere, except one. It was yellow, bright, singing at the top of its lungs. I looked at my parents. They looked at each other. We bought the canary.

I called her Calliope because I was deep in that Greek mythology phase you go through in middle school when everything you feel takes place in epic proportions that only old legends have the scope to encapsulate. I carried her cage back and forth every other weekend and cleaned it out myself. Her song sounded a little like a car alarm. Mary Yang told me that only boy birds sing, but I figured it was a bird and as long as it was caged up and alone it didn’t really care one way or another what I called it.

Sometimes I would talk to Calliope in my room at night because I couldn’t really tell Mom or Dad the things I was thinking. I had friends, but the one-layered middle school variety of friends who you knew from algebra or jazz band and you only ever talked to in algebra or jazz band. They didn’t know one another, and they didn’t know about the other facets of my life. I didn’t like my foods to touch.

With Calliope it was different. For one thing, I kept her in a cage so she couldn’t go anywhere. She was a bird, so she couldn’t tell anyone. And when she cocked her head and went quiet it felt like she was listening for real, like she was sympathizing and understanding.

I told her about how embarrassing it was when the teacher paired me and my crush Johnny Cochrane together for a science lab when I had a bad breakout, or how I got my first period in second period and I had to be sent home because I bled through my pants, or how Madison and Kayla were in a huge fight and I couldn’t even say anything about it because they’d accuse me of taking sides and then I’d be the bad guy to both of them somehow. I even told Calliope about how Mom got a new boyfriend she thought I didn’t know about, but how sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her with him doing it in her room. I wondered if Dad knew she had moved on so fast. I wondered if he would, too.

It was pretty easy to talk to Calliope, and after a while she started kind of cheeping back at me when I spoke like she was commiserating. I tried to show Dad, once, and dragged him to my bedroom to show that Calliope would talk to me, but she didn’t do it with him around. He said something like, “If you wanted a bird that could talk, you should’ve bought a parrot.”

When he left I turned to Calliope and gave her my meanest scowl. “Traitor.”

I flopped onto my bed—less comfortable than the one at Mom’s but with a prettier comforter—and shut my eyes for a few minutes, breathing slow and deep to control myself. I felt like crying suddenly, even though there was no reason to. I didn’t want to cry, and that made it even harder not to.

Suddenly Calliope spoke, but this time it wasn’t just chattering.

“Don’t cry,” she said, and she said it with my voice.

I sat up straight, my eyes suddenly dry, and I opened my mouth to respond, but all that came out was a meek little peep.

“It’s going to be alright,” Calliope said.

I tried to cry out and found myself singing her usual whistling call.

“Open up my cage.”

And I did.

“Now open up your window.”

It was unnerving to watch her talk. She just slightly opened her beak, and didn’t move it at all when the sounds of her speech changed. The words flew out like they’d been recorded, and as I opened my window I cheeped something to that effect.

“It won’t be for long, love,” she said, and suddenly I felt my arms go cold and goose-pimpled.

“I’m going to fly away now,” she said. “And you’ll never see me again. But you’ll have your voice back, and you should really use it to talk to someone other than a bird.”

I twittered indignantly, and she cocked her head to the side a little. “Really. You’re thirteen years old. Have some agency.”

And with that she took flight.

I twittered and cheeped and sang and called until my voice became my own again, yelling, “Wait!”

But she was already out of my sight by then and there was nothing else to do. My father burst in after a moment and took in the scene—the open window, the empty birdcage, the wild, raw look in my eyes—and said, “Oh, honey,” and I ran into his arms and cried.

Poem: The Oracle

I can promise you many things

                        (but the truth is not one of them)

Wouldn’t you like sticky fingers

                        to hold onto life better?

Wouldn’t you like to breathe honey

                        so your words came out sweet?

I built the bones of this city,

            Carved its name with my own beak.

I know a spoon of sugar spoils concrete.

            I have loved the taste of lug nuts.

You will die on a Tuesday

            With fifty dollars to your name,

The same name on the lips of a loved one

            Who you loved second-best.

The pigeons are more afraid of me than you are.

            Crows like shiny things, like tourists.

I ate a rat once, all crunchy bones and street-slime.

            It tasted like the look on your face.

You needn’t pay me with dollars.

            I don’t need the kind of favor you could give.

I want only your eyes, for a moment,

            Your ears, for a moment, your mind.

Haven’t you dreamed that the moths all lost their wings?

            One time you drove a Ferrari that frothed and bit.

Children know things that time should not allow.

            Your father thought you were special, once.

Can you read your future in my feathers?

            Won’t you look inside my amber eyes?

Didn’t your mother tell you not to talk to strangers?

            Haven’t you heard this all before somewhere?

I can promise you the world on a paper plate,

            Or love wrapped in butcher’s twine,

Or gold to encrust your lungs and lips

            (but the truth is not mine to give)

Poem: Running Away

Running Away

When I lace my sneakers

I tie a little noose around the bunny

& string him up

& that looks something like love

From a distance, holding together

Disparate parts with a little

Death & a little

Promise & a little

Tension & a little

Hope,

                        But I’m useless with knots,

                        Unraveling them like Christmas sweaters,

                                    & I don’t really go for the death penalty

                                    & I don’t keep rabbits’ feet for luck

                                    & I heard that Velcro is having a comeback

                        But sometimes you’ve got to just keep

                        Tying the laces up again

                        Even if your fingers fumble

                        & even if your knot’s too loose

                        & even if that damn bunny just won’t die

                        & the gallows topples

                        & your foot splits the seams like Zion in Nikes,

                        Because someday that knot’s gonna stick

            & maybe you’ll even double-knot it

            & kill two bunnies with one rope

                        Or maybe you won’t,

                                                But at any rate

                                                You can’t run with warring feet

                                                Or you’ll trip all over yourself

                                                & fall head

                                                Over heels

                                                When you’re biting asphalt

                                                Instead of wasting away

                                                Trying to kill an unkillable rabbit

                                                Like goddamn Elmer Fudd,

                                                                       & isn’t that the point?