January 4, 2009


This is a quote on writing I really like. Nick Cave, one of my favourite musicians, was speaking about his acclaimed lyricism. Cave was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal (here) back in April 2008:
"The false things glare at you, but if you learn your craft, you know to get rid of them. Stealing of a line is a lesser thing than the false line."
I used to think of "stealing" as a clear-cut case of plagiarism, a concept I've abhorred since the Sixth Grade when my friend Andrea drew that portrait of a unicorn under a rainbow that I was sure she had copied from my own equally unimaginative art project. In an art class in Grade 11, again, I thought I had come up with an original concept, until another student asked me if I had been inspired by a particular movie. I had not.

It's taken the longest time but I think I finally and fully appreciate the difference between plagiarism and inspiration. Frequently, I will watch a movie in the same genre as a novel I am writing only to see them use the same plot twist. Even a year ago, I would wonder in dismay if I could still use my own instance anymore, or it might appear as if I had lazily stolen their idea rather than developed it on my own. Once they even used a line of dialogue I had already written on an episode of, like, Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was irked until I realized there are so few ways to express that sentiment in that circumstance. Besides, being accused of "borrowing" from Joss Whedon is not the worst scenario facing a writer, and accusations of imitation can also be flattering in that sense. Virtually everybody is borrowing from others anyway, and everything has already been imagined. (Researchers recently recovered an ancient Greek comedy routine very closely resembling Monty Python's Dead Parrot skit. No parrot, but the mechanics of the joke are the same.) All we can do as writers is try to invoke a fresh spirit into the thing by recombining ideas or adding new elemental twists. (I retain the right to refine this idea later, probably by finding a better description of this dynamic written by someone else.) It's also important — as noted by Guy Gavriel Kay, quoted in an older local post — to investigate the source material and not find inspiration only in recent books or movies where even they may be borrowing superficially from other recent narratives.

Fortunately, that particular novel I'm writing contains the idea, both structurally and referentially, that everything is connected and the same ideas or events play out repetitiously over the ages with a slightly different tune, until we come to think that current ideas or events are a whole new song entirely. They are not.

As for inspiration, sometimes I find listening to music inspires me to write a line of poetry, even though what I wrote isn't the same as the lyric; sometimes I find watching movies inspires me to write some dialogue that is only tangentially related. It can jog my memory of an element I want to introduce, just by invoking the same emotional response or insight. And by reading novels, I am 'inspired' to avoid certain plot devices or writing styles or, more positively, by the rhythm and cadence of that writer's narrative. In that way, other people's creative output can get my own creative process churning.

Of Nick Cave, WSJ's Jim Fusilli writes:
[He] is a successor to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bob Marley and other artists who used narrative techniques to expand our perception of a rock song. He's the writer Jim Morrison thought he was, or might have become had he not flamed out early. When you enter a Cave song, the experience it most resembles is reading a piece of short fiction — except that the music by his fierce backing band alternately pounds and slithers across your body and Mr. Cave sings in a manner somewhere between that of a tent preacher and that of the world's most insistent lounge singer.
The whole article is interesting from a writer's perspective, as his career has included unconventional rock lyrics, screenplays, and a novel. He mostly speaks about the writing process itself, not so much his background as a musician.

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