The Practicality and Morality of Being a Magpie

I advise you to keep your writer’s notebook handy when you’re reading, because you want it right there when inspiration strikes, and if you’re a writer and a reader, odds are you’re most likely to be the receiver of the inspiration fairy when you’re reading.

Some people are probably feeling some low level panic right now. “But I don’t want to steal someone’s ideas! I don’t wanna be a copy cat!”

Okay, I hear you.  I used to worry about the exact same thing.  I’d worry about “stealing” ideas or of being “too influenced” by a particular author or book.

My short response, dear hearts, is this: don’t worry about it.

There are two aspects to this pressing concern: the practical side and the intellectual/moral side.

On the practical side, ideas change so much from conception to final product that the original idea will most likely be unrecognizable.  I, for one, find it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to recognizably replicate the book that inspired you.

On the moral side, I find it admirable that you place emphasis on originality and responsibility for your own ideas.  As writers, we’re bred to seek after the previously unexplored.  We’re expected to unearth the buried.

On the practical side, this expectation of Absolute Originality is unreasonable, because even in Biblical times, there wasn’t anything new under the sun.  And, paradoxically, anything you generate will be original anyway (at the very least in execution) because it came from you and not anyone else.

On the moral side, I think the emphasis ought to be placed on authenticity.  Instead of the aesthetic details of your world or your characters or your magical system, consider them vessels for your personal meaning.  Because without something Deeper, the aesthetic will be empty and essentially meaningless.

On the practical side, you are a human being, which means you are graced with the remarkable ability to discern minuscule details from one another.  So consider this difference:

  • I like this idea of two mismatched eyes, one totally black, the other normal, and how it signifies they have blood magic that can transport them between worlds.
  • I like this idea of wands.  I’ll do something with wands.

I’ll bet–and I’m confident that I’ll win this bet–that you are able to discern the degree to which these two thought processes are different.  The first example is very specific to the world and plot of the story from which it came (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab).  The second example, however, is a general concept that could apply to any number of stories, including my current WiP.

I would personally consider the first example worrisome and yes, edging too close to the idea of “copying.”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the second example, though, because it leaves the limitless question of, “What about wands?” hanging in the air, leaving you to answer it however you please.

On the moral side, you probably want to continue to grow as a writer and a creator.  So I urge you to ask yourself this question when you come across something shiny that catches your eye:  “What more can I do with this?  What else is there to explore with this idea?”

On the practical side, writing down the spinoff inspired by the story you’re reading in no way commits you to doing anything with that idea.  You’re a writer.  Like magpies and ravens, we collect shiny things to add to our hoards.  It’s a Thing.

I’ll leave you with this.

I’ve found that the more confident I became in my own writing and storytelling abilities, the less I coveted the ideas I found in published works.  This tells me that the problem does not lie in the copying itself, but of the lack of confidence that causes it.  Instead of worrying about being a copy cat, consider instead your confidence in yourself.  The more confident you become in yourself, the less demand you will feel to claim someone else’s work as your own.

Getting Struck by Lightning v. Sifting for Gold

I deeply and ardently admire Elizabeth Gilbert.  Let me count the ways–no, I won’t, because that would take an entire novel’s worth and I doubt you’re that interested.

But I have to say this: Elizabeth Gilbert and I think a little differently about creativity.  The way we process creativity is different.  Which, of course it is, because people are different.  That’s definitely a Thing.  

The way Elizabeth Gilbert talks about creativity makes me feel like a prude.  A creative prude.  She challenges her readers in Big Magic to “have an affair” with their creativity.  Sneak away to make out with it for fifteen minutes in the stairwell.  “Don’t think of it all as burdensome; think of it all as sexy.”  I mean, me here.  Ha.  I treat my writing like we’re an old married couple: “You gonna hold my hand today?” “Don’t I hold your hand everyday, woman?”

Liz Gilbert thinks about creativity in Big Ways.  In Extremes.  When Liz Gilbert talks about creativity and getting ideas, she labels it as Magic.  “Like, in the Hogwarts sense.”

This is not where we disagree.  Because I would be the last person to tell you that creativity isn’t magical and magic itself, because it totally is.

But consider this excerpt from Elizabeth Gilbert’s magnificent book, Big Magic:

When he told me this story–especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines–chills ran up my arms.  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy.  I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous.

I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on.  Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.

This is what it feels like when an idea comes to you.

Disclaimer: I know that I’m going to be putting too fine a point on it here, but here it is.

I agree with a great deal of this statement, because it has happened to me several times, once very vividly, when I got the idea for my epic middle grade series and, in the space of a very intense minute, I could see the entire story laid out in front of me, and it felt like my brain was going to ooze out of my ears.

But I’ll be honest.  I feel just a smidge left out here, because I don’t tend to get Struck like this.  Maybe back when I was a teenager, and I’d run off after any idea with a pretty enough face, but I learned not to chase those ideas, or to give them as much time as I was, because I couldn’t hunker down for the long haul and that’s not fair to the idea or to me.

Inspiration has become subtler and subtler to me over the years.  It isn’t as electrifying or, dare I say, magical.  When I get an idea for a story, I don’t know that it’s going to become a Thing because they tend to come to me the same as any other idea.  Finding an Idea that I’m going to turn into a Story is, for me, like sifting for gold.  I paw through the ideas that are kind of ordinary and dull until I find something shiny.  It may be half-buried in muck with dirt all in the crevices that’ll be a bitch to get out, but it glints with promise under the scorching sun.

All that being said, I kind of like the way Liz Gilbert gets ideas.  It sounds practically orgasmic, and hey, I’ve been kind of tense lately.