Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"If it's out there, it's mine"

There are stories that I can't write because someone else has already written them.

I recognize the absurdity of this idea. With many thousands of years of the storytelling tradition behind us, is originality even a plausible concept? Still, we all strive for the fresh, the new, the unique. Or so I thought.

Last week, I stumbled across an interview with John Mellencamp on NPR's Fresh Air. In response to a question on his songwriting process, he said:

As I've matured as a songwriter, I realized that if it's out there, it's mine. You know, everything I see and hear, I don't care if Shakespeare wrote it, or if Tennessee Williams wrote it, or if Bob Dylan wrote it, or I see it on a sitcom. If I hear words, they're mine. And so I will take ideas from any place, anywhere, anytime, and life has become a song to me. I'm always looking for a song.

I was floored. Sure, repackaging plots from Shakespeare and Jane Austin is a time-honored and profitable tradition, but isn't the real goal to create something new? Yet here was a successful and respected songwriter on the other end of my radio telling me that I had it all backwards.

Obviously, we can't take these words too literally. There are copyright issues to be considered, after all. But John Mellencamp is clearly telling us that, as artists, originality is perhaps the least important factor. Not only that, but this is a conclusion that he's come to after years of experience and success. It's a wisdom he's reached.

It seemed radical when I first heard him say those words, "if it's out there, it's mine." Then I thought about all the stories I'd abandoned after I remembered who else had written them. Maybe some of them would have been great tales. Maybe they would have gone in new directions, and I would have been the only one who saw the similarities in the final product. It's definitely a philosophy that I'd like to try out for myself. I'm sure Mr. Mellencamp won't mind me stealing it. After all, he put it out there. Now it's mine.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Perfect Setting

One of my favorite excuses for abandoning a story is the difficulty of balancing realism with fiction in the setting. If the setting is too fictional (certain genres excepted), everyone will know me for a fraud. Err too far on the side of realism, and the story gets bogged down in the mundane details. Rather than just writing the story and worrying about it later, I become obsessed with finding the perfect setting. Usually, I don't find one, and the story goes unfinished.

I was reminded of the setting dilemma after reading this review of Jim Butcher's Storm Front over at The Wertzone. The book is the first in the series The Dresden Files, which is set in Chicago. I called Chicago home for many years, and was stoked to find a book set in my city.

It didn't take long to realize that even without the fantastical creatures, Butcher's Chicago was not quite the same city as mine. I was disappointed by every inaccurate detail. The friend who'd loaned me the book in the first place was also a former Chicagoan, yet he loved the Chicago setting despite the flaws. Every time I came across a new detail that didn't match the real city, I'd wonder why Butcher even bothered to use Chicago as his backdrop if he wasn't going to research it properly.

Maybe I'm just too picky. Could it be ok to mix a real setting with convenient yet inaccurate details? Although I was bothered, I certainly didn't let it deter me from continuing for the next several books in the series. And it could be that I was the only one who cared. Obviously, there's a point at which vagueness, at least, is preferred. Too specific, and you could wind up creating a personal hell for some unlucky person: the next 867-5309 debacle.

Until I figure out how to balance my need for accuracy with a convenient setting, I just have to keep hoping that someday I'll be lucky enough to actually find that perfect setting.

Friday, March 27, 2009

And We're Back

You know you've fallen out of touch when the Flickr pictures of the new baby are the first you've heard that your friends are expecting.

I started this blog some time ago. I wasn't very good at keeping it. I had just quit the sensible job with the good salary, and I had all these plans. Plans of wacky adventures that would serve as a backdrop for the process of reawakening my creativity. Eventually, once said creativity had heard the alarm and had some coffee, I might come up with a novel or something. Keeping a public blog would be a great way to motivate myself, I thought. Once I got used to writing in the public eye, I wouldn't be so critical and delete-happy with my fiction attempts.

The trouble is, my plans for wacky adventures leading to a charmed life was a better plot than anything I've ever come up with for fiction. I've really enjoyed my life since I left the programming world, but life goes off-plot more than Tolkien. It didn't fit with what I had planned for my blog, so I just didn't write at all.

I was reminded of my poor, neglected blog when my friend Fee decided to start a blog to go along with her renewed dedication to painting: Works in Progress. And so, I've decided to give my own blog another shot. I've already taken the logical first step to restarting my blog: I deleted all the posts.

I spent almost a week trying to come up with a post about how I haven't written. I couldn't find a way to make it anything but a bunch of petty excuses. Finally, it occurred to me that I had failed the first time because the blog was simply a reason to write. It was lacking a theme. A theme is a much more compelling reason to write than writing simply as an exercise. I had shied away from one the first time because I didn't want to pretend I was some sort of expert on any given subject. Of course, there is a subject I know everything about. I know all about not writing!

And voila, we have a theme.