“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
The more I repeat that unattributed line to myself, I end up beating myself up over seemingly skipping the “passable artist” phase.
Specifically, the one where you do your own work from scratch.
I’m something of an artistic leech. If I was just a consumer, I’d likely get away with merely being called a fan, posting on some obscure forum or site. But the only lot in life I’ve been able to carve out is that of a writer, and the only tools I can scrounge up are the works of others.
It makes one wonder how it got to be like this. A few too many rounds of mining for honest-to-goodness inspiration and just as many instances of “hot diggity damn! That looks cool! I could use that!”. Then my watering hole of ideas got so comfortable, it eventually grew to be the bed where the seeds of my writing would grow.
It’s best left up to one’s imagination where all the metaphorical dirt came from to make it that way.
To make sure there aren’t any misunderstandings should anyone else find this journal, it’s not like my method is to just take someone else’s story and flip it like the house on some reality show. It’s more like a springboard for inspiration. Though “taking the story and running with it” wouldn’t really be the best thing to say while worrying about plagiarism.
Thing is, if I had the right levels of both shame and integrity, I’d have done away with the smoke and mirrors and stuck to unambiguous fanwork. But a guy’s got to make a living, so the iconic characters and settings I love so much are getting their names changed faster than you can say “McLovin.”
I’m sure a good number of people would assume I do this because of some delusion of grandeur, that I can do the work of revered professionals better than they can.
As for those who still disapprove, they’re likely to take some satisfaction in the fact that my work is oftentimes as tricky as it is thankless. See, when I want to take a world or cast and make it lawyer-friendly, the easiest way to go about that is to work off the initials of each character and craft new names from that. The problem is that, either out of legitimate concern or out of my own paranoia, the fear that people will get wise grips me if no further steps are taken. For that, we exploit the chitchat topic pretty much every caucasian over 30 has used: name meaning. Temperament, role in the plot (original or the expansion), appearance; use these to mine for names that work. It helps exercise that atrophied creativity as well as seems less obvious than just taking the name of some random celebrity. For example, let’s say I’m drawing a blank on a name for someone known for being mysterious. All I need to do is look up a name that means something associated with mystery (say, “secret” or “shadow”) and I’ll get a handful of names. Even names one would think would be useless in contemporary writing like “Zelophehad” can just be chopped up into much more fitting “Zelda” or “Zed”.
As for setting, that’s not too different. Even the most unique settings can get boiled down to some degree into the stock genre of “fantasy”, “sci-fi”, or “modern”, then to their own subgenres of “high fantasy”, “hard sci-fi”, “urban”, and so on. The problem is finding a substitute for the original work’s own brand of unobtanium. Star Wars’ Force, the power of Persona, even that particular brand of mecha from that series I just want to lighten up a little; how does one mimic the spark that makes these properties what they are without looking like an off-brand knock-off?
Or, God forbid, the porn version.
This is where the technical aspect of my work comes into play.
It comes down to calculus. What aspects does this unique thing possess? More importantly, what are the important, endearing parts that the replica needs and what can we afford to discard in the name of originality?
A work that’s fascinated me recently is a cult movie that’s been making the rounds online. It revolves around a time-bending phenomenon that causes monsters to roam the streets at night. In this case, the time-warping aspect can be thrown away as long as there’s a new monster-summoning doohickey that keeps the less-than-secondary characters ignorant to the goings-on. It has to be periodic to give the main cast some breathing room, along with something the setting’s population should be ignorant to. Maybe some portal (hidden in either the basement of a building important to the plot or the sewers, likely the former) from the local Demon Town™ that opens up every new moon at midnight (full moons are far too common to risk using.)
Yet, even with all the changes, the source is still shining through. How the hell is anyone supposed to not clue into Keith Murray being a blatant stand-in for Dave Silverstein? How is sneaking around an original idea supposed to hold a candle to whatever drug-induced genius these professionals have been popping out?! They’re the golden goose, laying one 24-Karat egg after another, and I’ll be lucky to be remembered as a guy in an Easter bunny costume. The garbage I’m stitching together doesn’t even have a scent of guilty chocolate!
It’s far too late for disillusionment now.
Looking over the journal for yesterday has proven useful for putting my creative process in perspective. Most importantly, the concerns about unoriginality.
With only a night’s worth of hindsight, the mentality that there are no original ideas makes for a rather convenient cover, maybe even justification. We writers are driven by what we care about, be it Lucas’ admiration for the stories of his youth, or the sneering disdain Salinger had for… whatever it was. The idea that ideally, writers should spin ideas from the ether, untainted by this world’s art sounds like something peddled by a non-writer: someone who hasn’t the slightest clue on how to actually do this job.
It’s not exactly encouraging that such a mindset found its way to me, but hopefully this new line of thinking sticks. What’s more important is to get into a steady pace of work. I may not look like a plagiarist if I don’t put anything out, but that’ll be a small comfort to an empty stomach.
I think I’ll give that demon portal story a whirl, see if I can get “Keith” a better sendoff than the last guy.
If nothing else, it’ll at least be less of an artistic freeloader than the New Testament.