Each time I sit down to put words to paper (literally or figuratively), and each time I sit down to plan a chapter or a story, I am haunted by the spectres of stories past, and sometimes I find that very distracting.
There are some stories I remember very well, in whole or in part, and these stories form part of the foundation of my writing. What I find interesting is that as much as I might remember the specifics of plots or characters, I often don’t remember titles or authors, and even the notes I might have made have come to be buried in all the other notes I make. For a few of them, I’ve tried searches, almost always unsuccessful, though the act of trying to search does help me revisit those parts I do remember.
Sometimes they come through because they contain an idea I want to work through in a different way than the author, which then inevitably leads to a discussion (for another day) of the oft-quoted aphorism that ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal‘, which has an interestingly twisted origin. And here, I can find my academic background coming through, where a paper (mathematical, in my case) can be viewed as a story, with the author saying, this is how far I’ve taken things, and I give this story to you the reader, and I’m curious where you can take it from here.
Sometimes they come through because there is an element of style that I can only view with awe. I’m sure we each have a list of stories that we carry around in our heads, those stories that made us go WOW the first time we read them, and every subsequent time. I suspect that groups amongst us might have a few of these in common, but I like reading the lists of other people’s WOW stories, because I always discover stories I hadn’t read before.
And sometimes, we carry with us the stories that do both. There is one in particular I remember, of a high level bureaucrat on a newly colonized alien world, though not the base commander. By the clever manipulation of the rules, he constructs a way of the indigenous aliens, who are dying essentially of boredom and the lack of challenge, to steal a ship so that they can find a new world. Moreover, it is the base commander’s signature on the incremental orders, and the bureaucrat himself earns a commendation.
I spend a lot of my time navigating through bureaucracies and I can’t help but admire our brave bureaucrat. I don’t remember the title of this story, or its author, or even how long ago I read it. And interestingly, if someone were to point me to an accessible copy of the story, I’m not sure I would look it up. Would the actual story live up to the memory I’ve constructed and I carry around with me? This has happened to me a few rare times, reading something once and not wanting to read it even a second time.
And so, I go back to work, trying to craft something that will carry the echoes of the things I’ve read but which nonetheless gives the reader something nifty to hold one to and smile about.
Jim Anderson (available on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com) is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.