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"Watch my brains a minute, and see them whirl around."
alchemy 
27th-Jun-2006 05:40 pm
writing: glass cat--sarah
truepenny: Writers' brains are an infinite series of alchemical laboratories, all busily engaged in the process of turning lead into gold.

"Lead" in this case means input of all kinds: sensory, intellectual, emotional. "Gold" is a story that works. But one of the most interesting kinds of transmutation is the one where the "lead" is itself a story (i.e., somebody else's gold), and the gold is a new story.

A personal example: when I was a teenager and reading like a goat eats, i.e., omnivorously and without discrimination, I read Weis and Hickman's The Rose of the Prophet. Quasi-Arabian Nights, and I seem to remember gods being kept in a fishbowl? But anyway, one of the major characters is what The Tough Guide to Fantasyland would characterize as the Gay Mage. Red-haired, pale-skinned, androgynous--he has a "fluting" voice--beautiful. And of course, gay. Although his gayness is subtle to the point of subtextuality, and certainly never consummated.

Dump it into the lab, spin the gears, make the mystic incantations, and voila! You get ... Felix. Red-haired, pale-skinned, androgynous (no facial hair, and much too pretty for his own good), with a high, breathy tenor. And queer. Queer as a three-dollar bill, and over-sexed to boot.

I don't think I would ever have gotten to Felix if it hadn't been for Mathew--and for another Weis and Hickman character, Raistlin Majere. Is the line of descent recognizable to anyone but me? Probably not (although now that I've obligingly spelled it out for y'all ...). But this is how the alchemical process works, and why there's a certain point at which value judgments about "literary merit" cease to be useful. Because I learned from The Rose of the Prophet and the Dragonlance books, and what I learned transmutes to gold just the same way all the rest of it does.

matociquala: Sarah's experience in this--the input turning into the output--fits with my history as a writer, as well, What's really amusing about it is how much of it one can do without realizing a bit of it. There was my somewhat shocking 2003 revelation that when I was writing the bantering relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe in The Stratford Man, I was to some extent duplicating the dynamic of the main characters of The Man From UNCLE. (A revelation that led to me getting truepenny hooked on the show, for what it's worth.)

I hadn't known then that that was what I was doing, but the line of descent of the ironical back and forth is, in retrospect, pretty obvious to me. I mean, Will and Kit don't sound like Napoleon and Illya. But the rhythm carries through.

More recently, I stumbled over the source of a couple of my male characters. While very different men in a lot of ways, both Gabe Castaign and Matthew Szczegielniak are good-natured, intelligent, feminist, nurturing, principled, and capable of an absolute uncompromising sort of ruthlessness when something they care about is threatened. Also, they're both blond. And deceptively tough.

Now, Gabe is in his fifties, a single father, a widower, a bit of a tramp, ex-military, now a programmer, big and broad and a bit out of shape these days. He's got a ferocious temper under the right circumstances, but he's generally level-headed and while he tries hard, he's not really verbally quick. He's got a big family, which he loves, and he keeps adding to it. Also, his jokes are pretty lame.

Matthew, on the other hand, is 33, not too tall, spends most of his free time on athletic pursuits, has never kissed a girl (but has read up on it extensively), expends a great deal of energy on camouflage (emotional, physical, magical), is a Mage and a scholar, is an orphan who also lost his older brother, and relies on a sugar momma for support. He's fanatically devoted to a cause, and he'd die to protect a stranger. He's witty, bitchy, and gets rather upset with people who don't automatically understand that his perspective is Correct and that his side is the Right Side.

...they are both, I realized, while watching some '80's television the other month, the linear descendants of William Katt's character on The Greatest American Hero, Ralph Hinkley.

Yeah, I know.

This is where I came in.

***

The point is, I guess, that these things do get consumed and digested and the bones and flesh of story get built out of them. The trick, in my mind, is to own them. To put them in the pot and let them simmer long enough that they are converted, as Sarah said, into gold. Or into something new, in any case.

The correct answer, for me, to "where do you get your ideas?" is "All over the place. They just have to cook."

truepenny: 1. This process happens whether you're watching it or not. It can be conscious--we wrote A Companion to Wolves, after all, because we were consciously transmuting something old (Anne McCaffrey's Pern books and certain of their unexamined assumptions) into something new. But it doesn't have to be conscious. Mostly, in my experience, it's more in the "belated epiphany" class. Oh, THAT's what I was doing!

2. Creativity, like a goat, doesn't CARE if it's eating Beluga caviar or deep-fried Twinkies. On some very basic level, it can't even tell the difference.

matociquala: I'd actually pick this apart a bit further and say that one's creativity needs both. The deep-fried Twinkies and the caviar. Because art is about life, and life is about both. The illusion of depth is achieved by layering.

Pretension, on the other hand, is dishonesty, and dishonesty leads to lousy art.

truepenny: The important thing is to admit to both. To own the "trash" as much as the "literature," and to testify, even if only to yourself, that both matter. As I said in a post on my own blog, it's the cross-connects we need, and you don't get those if you aren't an omnivore with an iron digestion.
Comments 
27th-Jun-2006 10:54 pm (UTC)
Especially that last bit. Yesyesyes.

*chomp*
28th-Jun-2006 12:25 am (UTC)
Ummm, EXACTLY!
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