Wednesday, June 13, 2012

REPOST from November 3, 2008

I just finished a great book called The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson. Reading good writing always makes me want to write. There's something inspiring about finding a fresh use of language, savoring it, and trying to use it for my own purposes. Some writers fear influence, but this has never made sense to me. Language flows through individual people like tributaries, each of us contributing to the great river of thoughts and sounds that make up the very grand, very adaptable English Language. This is how language changes. Writers should never fear influence from other great writers. I believe reading excellent work is what improves us as craftsmen.

Vibes certainly had many influences. I pulled the device of telepathy as a means of exploring the human condition from the brilliant Ray Bradbury. His work in The Martian Chroniclesuses telepathy to reveal how faulty are our constructions of reality, how individual, how fragile. Emma, by Jane Austen, was also a big influence on Vibes. Emma, just like Kristi, starts out thinking she's got everyone's number, but ends up learning that she is much more deceived and confused than anyone. I think Kristi's caustic wit was also borrowed from Austen, who can be every bit as caustic as any modern teenager. I very purposefully madeVibes a comedy in the Shakespearean sense, for the plot follows the basic outline of Taming of the Shrew in many ways. Kristi is a lot like Katherina, a strong, independent woman who is so protective of herself that she pushes everyone away. Ultimately it takes a man who is equally strong to make her admit that she needs love just as much as she needs independence. Because I allowed myself to be influenced by writers much greater than myself, I believe that my own writing was elevated above what it could have been if I had eschewed all influence.

But what about originality? With so many stories already written, and written better, how is it possible for any writer to really contribute something new? Some say it isn't possible, but I think that originality comes in a continuum. The truly original writers are those who change everything that comes after them. These are the geniuses. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Hemingway, among others, could be considered the literary lions of their respective centuries. I cannot hope for this level of originality. But I can be original in my own small way. Vibesborrows ideas and devices from great writing that has come before, and combines it to make something that is fresh, even if it isn't wholly new.

Originality doesn't only come in print form. In truth, we are all artists with language because we all speak in our own individualistic way. Everyone has little quirks, odd ways of speaking that help to make people the "characters" they are. These individual characteristics are why every human on earth contributes to the evolution of language. I wonder how many anonymous geniuses coined phrases that rode the waves of our verbiage, changing the way people express themselves. Who was the first person to use the word "dillweed?" How did "tight" replace "cool?" Why did people seize upon the change? What makes the new word feel so fresh and crisp? What makes one person describe a beautiful woman as "phat" and another describe her as "built?" Why are some guys "dawgs" and some "bros?" There are oral Shakespeare's changing our language every day, but few of them get any credit.

I'm reminded of that saying from Heraclitus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Our language changes every time we use it. Perhaps it changes us, too. I might once has been described as a "bird," but now I think I'd be lucky to be called a "betty." Very lucky. I may someday turn into a "cougar," but only if I make a radical lifestyle change and start lifting weights. I used to go around exclaiming, "Man alive!" Now I say "Holy cannoli!" for some reason. I like how it rhymes. I also like how no one else says it. Maybe someday I'll overhear it said on a subway platform or in an airport, and I'll know that a goofy phrase I once uttered entered the English lexicon. I can dream, can't I?

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