The ‘tooff’ and the truth

Replicated from my SheWrites blog, 23 January 2011.

One of the first stories I remember writing was called ‘The Tooth’ or in my then-childish scrawl, ‘The Tooff’.  I think I would have been about six.  I still have the story, written in green crayon, with my own corrections in pencil a few years later.  As you can probably guess, it was about losing my first tooth.  It was a bottom tooth, and had been wobbly for some time.  Around the time, I had tried my first ever piece of chicken, having been brought up a vegetarian, and so had just discovered chicken drumsticks and eating meat off a bone.  The story, all true, went that I was sitting eating a banana during morning tea and my tooth came out and stuck in the banana.  I mistook it for a bone, or something not edible in my banana, and, being the impulsive mess-maker I was, I picked it out and threw it across the classroom!  As I looked across at my flying tooth’s trajectory, I realised what it was, but too late – plop, it fell straight into the bowl of soup that a boy in my class was eating.  Upon finishing my banana, I asked the boy if he’d found my tooth in his soup, and he showed me an empty bowl, saying he must have eaten it!  So I didn’t have anything to leave out for the tooth fairy.  My mum wrote her a note which we left on my dressing table, and lo and behold the next morning there was a shiny 50 cent piece waiting for me in its place.  After the tooth came a contribution from my granddad – ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’…

This was my first story, and it was a true story.  I didn’t know it then, but I would struggle forever with the concept of the truth in my writing.  Can you tell the truth?  Can you write about other people?  Surely even if you change their names it’s pretty obvious who you’re writing about.  What if they’re offended?  What if they sue you?  Doesn’t truth depend on perspective/perception anyway?  All these questions continue to plague me, but I realise that there isn’t a piece of writing out there that doesn’t have some sort of autobiographical element in it.  I think I’m interesting in people, interactions between them, and concepts around this are explored by way of rehashing the truth.  And after all, it’s my truth, it’s what I think is real and interesting.  I wonder though, would I get offended if someone wrote about me and I felt I was misrepresented?  Even if they changed my name so as not to identify me?  I think I might.  My most recent conclusion about how to combat this problem is to write about dead people.  The longer someone has been dead, the less possibility there is of someone getting upset about the representation.  And the more opportunity there is to make things up!  Fiction is an odd thing; on the one hand, it’s defined as ‘make believe’, yet on the other fiction writers are doing their best to make their writing ‘believable’.  So what is it, true or not?  Is all fiction true?  What is truth?  How can we establish a clear line between fiction and non-fiction?  And is there the same between truth and fairy stories?

Copying versus inspiration

I don’t know about other writers, but I often struggle with the urge to ‘copy’ someone else’s brilliant idea.  I am so frequently inspired by others who come up with clever names for blogs, interesting topics, new approaches and I think, why didn’t I do that?  Why can’t I do that?  I know in my head that it’s all subjective, and what one person finds brilliant, another finds dull… but when I stumble upon a particularly clever or interesting idea I desperately want to ‘steal’ it!  It’s not that I’m jealous or can’t come up with my own ideas, I am just so awestruck at the brilliance of some thoughts that replicating it somehow pays homage to it, and reinforces my opinion.

This feeling of stumbling upon greatness is pretty similar to that spark of inspiration that seems to strike at the most inconvenient times.

I think there really isn’t that much difference between feeling inspired generally and feeling inspired to replicate.  The way I write is so unconscious, it just floods out, so I find being objective about my writing really hard anyway, which means that what I perceive as brilliant might not actually be as good as my own writing, it’s just that I can be objective about it.

So how do you use others’ success as inspiration?  This is a hard question to answer.  I think rather than copying what someone does, it’s better to look at their overall journey, learn how they arrived at that final creation and be inspired by that process, rather than the outcome.