Thursday, 14 January 2010

Copying’s All Write

Real life is brimming with ideas you can copy for stories. UTHAYA SANKAR SB tells you what to do when your Muse goes on vacation.

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A writer friend of mine told me recently that she got her idea for a short story from absolutely nowhere. It just came to her mind in the form of a complete story.

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Impossible, I said. The idea must have come from somewhere. She told me the story and I started asking questions related to the characters and the incidents in her story. It didn’t take us long before we figured it out that the idea didn’t just appear.

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The story turned out to be incidents related to her discussion with some of her students in school. Though not in complete form, my friend too agreed that she must have got the idea for the latest short story from the discussion.

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On the other hand, some of the participants in my creative writing workshops often tell me that they have no idea for a story. They couldn’t think of one; more like it.

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So I tell them to simply copy an idea. This suggestion never fails to surprise my students. Then I explain what I actually mean. The most original authors are not so because they advance in what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before, to paraphrase Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

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Philip Johnson says it more directly: You always copy. Everybody copies, whether they admit it or not. There is no such thing as not copying. Creativity is selective copying.

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One of my earlier short stories, “Kasih Ibu” (Orang Dimensi, 1994) is about a mother who turns in her gangster son to the police. If one has read Jong Chian Lai’s “Pasrah” (Dewan Sastera, February 1994), one would start wondering which writer copied the other.

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I got the idea for “Kasih Ibu” after reading a report in the newspapers on 5 May 1992. When I met Jong Chian Jai in 1995, I asked him about his “Pasrah” and guess what? He too got his idea after reading the same report!

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Let’s face it: everyone copies from somewhere. That’s what we call an idea in creative writing. If you imagine a writer sitting by the sea and waiting for ideas to fall from the sky, you better give yourself a slap on the face and say, WAKE UP!

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Real writers don’t wait for ideas to come running to them. Instead, they search and research, and observe their surroundings. Real writers don’t make up stories. Not even real science-fiction authors.

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Imagination is vital but it should not overshadow facts. Creative writing does not mean an author has the right to make up stories based on imagination and fantasy alone.

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Ask John Grisham and he’d tell you about how he stumbled upon a horrible trial in which a young girl testified against the man who brutally raped her in 1984. The author wondered what he would do if that young girl was his daughter. Thus he wrote A Time to Kill (1989) by manipulating his knowledge and experience as a lawyer.

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Good fiction worth reading has more than merely the author’s imagination in it. It has facts. The author copies an idea from reality, from life. Research and facts add value to the fiction.

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But of course, in Malaysia, things are often different. Especially among some young writers who tend to rely wholly upon their imagination and Muse to write. Overdose of imagination and fantasy spoils the whole idea of enjoying a good book.

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In my workshops, I make it clear to my students that imagination is not only fantasy. Instead, I say, think of it as the challenge in telling the whole story in words and in words alone so that readers can not only understand the story but also see the visuals (setting, props etc), hear the audio (voice of the characters, music in the air etc) and even smell the belacan, if necessary.

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Now, that’s what I call an author’s imagination!

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You need a setting? Copy KLCC or your study room. You need a character? Copy Tom Hanks or your headmaster. You need a story? Stop dreaming and go out and mingle with people. They have your story. All you have to do is copy it.

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New Straits Times, 28 July 2001

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