I. Sometimes I suffer under the fear that if I use an idea, a phrase, or a circumstance, I cannot use it again. And if that's the case then I should save it for better projects, bigger things, more skillful me's. It has nothing to do with the amazing sanctity of words, or don't think it does; I've always done this, with everything, from Mrs. Grossman sticker sheets to packs of chocolate, outfits, recipes. The difference between words and the first two are that these first to actually are finite. Stickers really only stick once and chocolate only tastes ones (heaven forbid you get it a second time!--no, too staged, not funny; not a joke to be saved, not one to be used at all). The difference between words and the second two, well. I actually have no problem reusing either of those. My body isn't picky and neither is my stomach, which makes my wardrobe very small (though very versatile; I own free T-shirts in every color of the rainbow and the same pair of jeans matches them perfectly for weeks without reprieve) and my mouth quite willing to sip tomato basil soup every day, for every meal, likewise for weeks at a time. I love tomato soup (but I'll only eat one recipe).
Really, as much as I love tomato soup and as much as I love being clothed, these activities, for me, lack the self-consciousness that comes with writing. Because if my cooking goes public, I will simply break my traditions and make something else. If I need to dress semi-formal, I can whip up a mean semi-formal. But with writing, if you're working with the same ideas over and over again--really just swirling in them--the same words, and suddenly you need to have something to show for yourself, you can't just change your tune.
Or, you can. You can do whatever the hell you want; type in yellow, suddenly decide to boycott vowels. That sort of thing. But that's what it all come down to: You can do whatever the hell you want. If you write an idea, you're not emigrating it across the Pacific, never to be seen again. (And no, I don't think emigrating is typically regarded with that sort of agency, agency here ascribed to you the writer, the motherland, and not the emigrant. But we talked about this. Whatever the hell.)
You want to come back and steal it back, there's no rule against that. But vigilante writership is easy to espouse and harder to follow 100%. That's where the self-consciousness thing comes in. You don't want to be one of those sad people who can only churn out the one thing--or I don't. The only thing worse than typecasting is self-typecasting! Niches become ruts, expertises crutches. Blah blah blah. It's all very messy, and very stupid, because writing really shouldn't be that thinky. Not down this avenue; there are better roads to waste your time on.
Writers recycle all the time. Students of the gothic mode might consider this a sort of haunting. For Kyoko Mori, it's her mother's suicide. When she's at the mall; while she's at piano lessons. Mori's mother and her characters' mothers all depart the same way. (Kitchen, gas stove; and not even any bell jars to show for their efforts.) For Dorothy Allison it's a few more things, but mostly it's a little albino girl catching fire. Sherman Alexie recycles everything, at every point, seemingly without compunction, some of which is traumatic and haunting and some of which is just reused. But maybe that's the idea; Ford trucks and basketballs can be just as haunting as powow costumes or housefires that kill everyone they touch.
Nothing is too precious to ever be used; and few things have only one lifespan. Yes, even stickers, if you are clever enough. The chocolate is harder. To end with one last literary reference, some Nabokov: At some point in Speak, Memory, he says that love--love!--isn't something to be kept. We're supposed to use it. We're supposed to run it ragged until there's nothing left. If that's a good enough fate for sweatshirts and tomatoes, then words should hop on down, too. There's a trick, of course, because there's always a trick, and there's always one more literary reference than I promised there'd be.
Walter Benjamin in "The Task of the Translator" believes that translations (transliterations, borrowings, swaps, reiterations, reconfigurations) provide the afterlife of a word or set of words. So maybe an idea does die when you set it to paper; it's okay, because you can drag it back and haunt it the same way it is probably haunting you. It changes on the basis of the forms its taken previously. They build on one another. Fail forevermore to exist outside the context of one another. Letting that happen is like making magic**.
** You are the magician in this metaphor. (Or simile. But metaphors subsume similes and the distinction is silly, anyway.)
II. I have stories that are just for me. They don't start out that way; I'm typically not that self-satisfying (that is I never give myself what I want, because I'm too obsessed with the feeling of not having and so find having what I want wanting). Mostly they're stories I meant to write and then didn't, and so ended up reading them to myself as bedtime stories. Or parts of them. It's a repetitive process. Same scene, same scene; and the scene again. Again again again, sometimes without even getting to the good part.
It occurs to me now this is probably the story version of me and tomato soup.
Eventually, ideas converge on one another and become these great, intense, monstrous things with complicated interpersonal relationships and cultural underpinnings and geographic ties and plots that span generations and states and any other kind of boundary. Everything, all the time, at all volumes, until it's probably fifteen different inklings that've all banded together to be something great. Maybe they are great, who knows; their problem is they really don't make that much sense outside of me, the same way dreams are always so dressed to impress, until you try to figure out why the hell you thought saving sharks from whales seemed so par for the course, and can't come up with jack.
To take this kind of story out of yourself you need to field strip it, lay it out all neatly, and start throwing things out until you have something clean again, and not just a heavy thing filled with jammed gears.
III. Some of my stories, whether they are just for me or just for everyone, are not just mine. Because if I sit around wondering if I can borrow from myself surely you have to sit around and wonder if you can borrow from other people.
Not plagiarism. Plagiarism is silly and mostly boring and a hell of a lot of paperwork if you're a professor's assistant and you're trying to sort out someone else's academic integrity. (Does integrity have an adjectival form?)
I just saw Sherman Alexie's film, The Business of Fancydancing, which is American Beauty gorgeous, even though it bears no resemblance to American Beauty almost at all. (They are both American. And are films.) Part of it is about this poet whose friends disown him because he's made poetry of their lives and claimed them as his own. This is, incidentally, a premise Alexie has visited more than once, though this is true of nearly all his premises; that's their power. He's visited its inverse as well--the scholar who records personal stories and claims them as his own, causing much pain and anguish to the very voices he treasures.
It's something he makes me think about a lot in terms of cultural appropriation vs. tendencies toward multiculturalism, but it's interesting from the standpoint of a writer as well. If you borrow hairs from one person you know, and body language or dialogue from someone you actually don't know and have only observed, and a plot from hearsay of gossip of anecdotes told at social gatherings you were not born soon enough to attend, is it yours? Does the way you compose it--birth its afterlife, in the words of Benjamin--make it yours? This train of thought leads to well-traveled discussions of copyright and creative commons, but I don't think that's exactly what I mean. I don't know what I mean.
But I think about The Business of Fancydancing and something tight and hungry happens just below my sternum. It's worth writing about, even if I have nothing to say.
IV. I have a lot of things to say, though most of the time I do not say them. Part of me thinks I should, because if I wrote them out, then I'd have to think about them more, and then I'd be able to remember them for later. But I don't. Fear, discomfort, disquiet, straight up laziness--pick your poison. I cannot help my platitudes (which are actually idioms, for the most part. Idioms or empty language like "for the most part").
The other part of me asks, why bother? Why would that deserve the work of words, the attentions of an audience. That is, who gives a fuck? Do I, even?
Then I think, if I wrote everything I thought maybe people who weren't me would actually know some of what I thought. Again, obvious, but I spent a lot of time wishing people would recognize me for what I thought without making myself public; it's strange how it works, that cause and effect thing. Quite strange.
If I wrote and rewrote and revisited everything I thought, I'd probably have for me what Sherman Alexie probably has for him. Maybe our era has given us this blessing. Facebook: updates on your every mundane moment. Instagram: pictures of the same. Twitter: 140 of your finest neural high jumps. Tumblr: who knows.
Write everything. Write drivel. Write half sentences. Write backwards.
Write whatever the hell you want because you no longer have to carve each letter into stone. There's a reason for that. And volume (mass production!) isn't always devilish. If someone were to actually puzzle through it all, words probably have more in common with chocolate bars than gold standards and the balance of modern economics. The just happen to keep better in heat.
And they're infinite.
* New formula; now fortified with 8g of essential daily irony!
And now it is 1:15AM.