My first major journal publication was a story I had a hard time figuring out. It took several years of work without the character fully clicking. Then I read a novel about a woman's mental health collapse. Her trials were darkly enthralling, and in her struggle I found the missing element to the character in my stalled-out story. Once I applied the reality of such an illness to my character, it gave me a new lens to see the life I was trying to create and complicated the world of my draft. After putting that story through several more rounds of revision with this new revelation of my character, it was accepted for publication as soon as I sent it out. I was elated. Then the chill of horror hit me. Did I plagiarize the novel I'd read?
My story only took flight after lifting the idea from what I'd read. In a panic I took a hard copy of my story and laid it side by side with that novel, which I had marked up with a pen the way I do with everything I read. I went looking for any language I may have stolen. What I found shocked me. There was NO similar language or even paraphrasing to be found in my story. My main character's wife had a mental illness and that was the only similarity. In the immediate aftermath of being influenced by what I'd read, I went back to revise my own work. In that very first post-reading revision I found direct links to the novel. But what came next were many rounds of revision, of making decisions that were right for the moment of the story, and each decision was guided by my own aesthetic. During that revision process I'd read other books and stories that influenced me and those either consciously or subconsciously seeped into my writing. What ended up happening was the final version of my story was directly influenced by the novel, but there were no trace elements linking the two once I was done.
I've been thinking about this experience for years. Two major tools of writing are language and experience. Though as a fiction writer, the process of my first big publication cemented for me the fact that they do not have to be my language and experience. I am the filter that processes everything that comes my way in order to make something new.
There is a line in John Casey's novel, Spartina, "Fake a little, bullshit a little, steal a little, stitch it together." This seems like a touch of confession to me. Something that hints at the process we writers do not directly talk about. We come to this craft through mimicry but then are supposed to take flight upon our own. Well, what do we do with all the tools and habits of mimicry that led us to our own voice? Do we leave those behind? Are they no longer of help?
I am skeptical of that, and have tried to find ways to still employ that first skill I learned as a writer and to make my students understand the value of actively reading for material that will help them deepen their own stories.
In fiction, you work until something roils up from the silent, broiling hot center of your inner life, or you fake it until that happens. The more you try, the easier it becomes to write out the deepest roots of your heart. Though, like Casey's line from Spartina hints at, other work helps you touch that place too. I read in order for little bursts of language, images, ideas, and feelings to ping off of dormant nerves. To awaken something in me I did not know before, but once I experience, can then employ and filter into something of my own. In this way I know my next book is already scattered in the pages of the next hundred books I read.