On Finding Out Someone’s Already Written What You Are Writing

I started my first novel in 2001 in a class at the University of Florida run by David Leavitt.  During my time in Florida, those students in fiction and those students in poetry were kept carefully separate in school.  Outside of class, we hung out at the same bars, frequented the same parties (that were frequented mainly by us), and ate at the same restaurants, but in class, never the twain shall meet.

Except I really wanted to take a fiction class, and Leavitt was kind enough to let me in.  The stories I submitted for his pre-class perusal were both realistic, if a little strange (one involved a guy who sneaked into his old piano teacher’s home to sit at her piano, and the other was the odyssey of a new resident of a small town to find a place to live, and there is an appliance-shooting party).  Little did he know that most of my reading and writing interests fiction-wise are science-fiction and fantasy.

This tendency did not go over well, though I’m not sure whether that’s because of my writing ability at the time or because of the innate prejudice of most of academia toward those genres.  (I lean at least partly to the latter since one person wrote on a story, in way of helpful comment: I have no experience with reading this sort of stuff, and so I have nothing to say.)

The novel I started in that class was definitely science-fiction.  It starts with a man meeting three other versions of himself in a diner, all brought together by a mysterious note.  I wrote 4400 words and stopped mostly because I had other classwork to get done.  By the time I returned to the story, I realized something that blindsided me and put me off finishing the novel for good.

Namely, this: I was copying wholesale the plot from Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

Carter is one of my favorite writers, and that book is one of my favorite books.  Having read it recently, it only makes sense that it would influence my own writing (especially as I’d never attempted a novel before).  The parallels seemed so striking at the time: the main character falling in love with a version of himself, the world dissolving into chaos through a breakdown in what we accept as “reality”, and the crisis being resolved by a great sacrifice that, in the end, the hero isn’t sure was the correct move.

Now, I see the differences as so much more glaring than the similarities.  Now, I understand that influence isn’t something to shy away from, that artists “steal” from each other all the time, and that a unique plot isn’t as important as the way that you tell the story.

But then I was mostly upset because I didn’t realize what I was doing.  I was copying instinctively, and that lack of self-knowledge bothered me more than anything else.

I read Miéville’s young adult novel Un Lun Dun only a few weeks ago, but I was struck by the similarities between it and THE DREAM THIEF, a novel I wrote two years ago.  At first, I thought, shit, I’ve been one-upped (and not in the extra life way), and my novel, if published, won’t ever be seen as anything but a fair copy of the original.  We both play with the conventions of quests and prophecies.  We both have unreal worlds existing beside or under or sideways to the real world.

But, you know what?  So what.

What I learned from my experience with Carter still stands.  Two writers, given the same plot and the same characters and the same beginnings and ends, will end up with two totally unique books.  The individual writer’s prejudices leak through and are unmistakable.

It’s not likely I’ll turn from THE DREAM THIEF because, for one, it’s already written.  But I guess what I’m saying for all you fellow artists out there is to not let yourself be stopped when you see resemblances between what you’re creating and the work of others.  By your very nature as an artist, what you create will be unique.

Which, I suppose, is just me telling myself that, well, I should go back and finish that novel.  After all, Angela Carter didn’t write it, and only I could.

This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply