Mostly when I write, I have no worries about plagiarism. My writing is based on my life experiences; when I have worries, they’re not about appropriating others’ material so much as about revealing shared stories when I know other participants might be reluctant to have the stories shared.

Sometimes, though, I read something, or see a movie, and I say to myself, “I wish I had written that”. Often I think this and then forget about it. Other times, I’m compelled to try my hand at emulating the author, or at adapting the source material.

Something funny happened on the way to writing the short story for last week’s class:

I read Craig Thompson’s graphic novel, Good-bye, Chunky Rice, and a subplot affected me in a profound way. (Craig Thompson interview here and here.) Part of the backstory is that two of the characters, brothers, once owned a dog named Stomper. Stomper gave birth to a litter of pups, but the boys’ father made one of the brothers drown them. This event haunts both boys. It haunts me, too. It’s a great little story, and I wish that I had conceived it. I wished it so much that I could think of little else while writing last week’s short story. Instead, I spent my time adapting this comic book to prose.

This raised a lot of complex questions. Quite obviously, Craig Thompson wrote this story in its original form. At what point does it become mine? Simply when I’ve converted it to prose? I don’t think so. When I’ve changed the names of all the characters? I don’t think so. Then when? Can it ever become mine?

How do I make the story mine?

As I’ve only written a first draft, I don’t feel tremendous pressure for complete immediate ownership of the story. For now, I’m content to have adapted the section from the comic book, making what changes occurred to me, fleshing out certain aspects, and adding to the story in one significant respect. I worked to incorporate elements of the myth of Artemis/Diana into the story. By doing this — and adding an “inspired by the work of Craig Thompson” to the byline — I feel that the story is beginning to become mine. But is it really? I mean, I’ve lifted some dialogue and phrasing directly from Armstrong’s comic.

I’m delved deep into a grey area, and I don’t know where the line is.

Ultimately, if I was ever to be truly happy with this story, and wanted to publish it, and still felt it was too similar to the source material, I would actually contact Armstrong to ask his permission to use his idea.

I’ve posted the first draft of Harbinger for you to read. (Remember: this is a first draft. I welcome comments and suggestions. I’m not going to be hurt or offended by anything you say. In fact, any advice you can give at this point is going to make the story stronger and, more importantly, more mine and not Thompson’s.) If I had the time, I’d scan the relevant panels from the comic and post them for you to compare with the story.

While doing yardwork on Saturday morning, several changes occurred to me, all of which help differentiate the story from Thompson’s.

The most important change I could make (but have no plans to do so — yet) is to alter the ending. The ending is a literal adaptation from Thompson. If I were to change the ending (and that would be difficult, because I love the ending), then the only remaining strongly-shared element of the stories would be the drowning of the puppies. At that point, I’d probably feel I owned my story.

For now though, I’m working on more writerly concerns. My classmates noted, once again, that I need to develop the characters more, to explain their motivations, to make them more complex, to show the dynamics of their relationships. They also felt the actual drowning scene was rushed. Great points.

To that end, my second draft will feature more background regarding the father, who becomes “a hard man, though he was not mean”. The father will have a personal relationship with the dog, Diana, so that when he orders the pups drowned, it carries more weight, and has a (more) rational basis. There’ll be more detail regarding the dog’s pregnancy. All three characters will watch the birth. Pa will be happy to have the puppies at first, but when he returns from his logging job, he’ll be dismayed at the manner in which Diana has wasted away. He’ll have Alex drown the puppies because he can’t do it himself. Etc.

The character development in the first draft was constrained by the assignment. Some of these constraints have been lifted for the second draft, and we’re supposed to add five pages to the story. That’s plenty of room to flesh out the characters and their relationships, and to work toward making the story more fully mine.


On 04 May 2004 (03:14 PM),
kaibutsu said:

I think it’s all grey area, really; a question of how much we want to try to draw lines separating ‘my’ ideas from ‘yours.’ Sure, there’s a legal question possibly involved if your were to publish it, but there’s so much adaptation and reworking of other stories out there that it’s hard to say that this story of the drowning of the puppies – a kind of story definitely told before – is plagiarism. (In fact, I think the worst you could be accused of is theft of intellectual property – plagiarism probably doesn’t even strictly apply, unless you are copying dialogue word-for-word.)

Shakespeare did this all the time, for just about every play he wrote, actually, adapting specific pieces of fiction and history to his theatrical versions.

This touches your biographical material, as well: where is the line between something that is your story, for your biography, and someone else’s story? Does it have to do with being a central character, as opposed to merely a spectator? Do you even have to neccesarily be present at an event in order to be allowed to tell the story? (Aren’t the stories of our grandparents somehow also ours?)

I don’t think we can draw bright lines around our stories, saying this one is mine and this one isn’t, any more than we can around our lives, saying this experience is mine, while that one was my brother’s. We share experience, we share stories. (And I tend to think that the distinction even between experience and story is a fuzzy one…)

The child I tutor is currently doing a project for school, in which he has a partner and the two are essentially role-playing the pioneer’s trip to Oregon. Each day, they have to write a journal entry on what happened, how things are going, etc. Jason likes the kid he works with a lot, and they talk about what’s going to happen to their characters, And yesterday he started talking about some great idea they had which would affect his partner’s character, Mr. Morris. Jason, though, was opposed to writing about this in his own journal, because it concerned Mr. Morris rather than Mr. Text (his own character). Here’s a nine-year-old kid with apparently highly developed idea of what constitutes intellectual theft.

Given that on the previous day he wrote rather remorselessly about shooting a couple of Sioux who tried to take his food, I tend to worry about where our moral priorities are placed.

On 04 May 2004 (04:59 PM),
J.D. Roth said:

Mom writes:

Reading your blog today reminded me of a story about your dad, and I thought you might be interested in it. When we first moved out here and into the trailer house when you kids were little, we acquired two black lab puppies, Sarah and Abraham. As you grew, they did too, until they got to the point where they were big enough to push you and Jeff down in their exuberance. We didn’t know what to do about that but both your dad and I felt for sure that we needed to get rid of them before they hurt one of you boys. Uncle Norman came up with the solution — he thought your dad ought to shoot them, which is what Uncle Norman did with unwanted dogs, even those who wandered across his property. Your dad said okay and came down here in the field near this place and got back far enough to take aim and shoot. He said it was one of the hardest things he had ever done, with those trusting eyes looking back at him, but since Uncle Norman was there, he didn’t feel he could back down. So he went ahead and shot them. He never considered doing that again.

I do remember this story, and have thought of it often in the past two weeks. It’s precisely why Thompson’s bit about drowning the puppies is so affecting. There’s a biographical connection with my own life.

I think Mom’s version above is much better than anything I could have produced. It encapsulates everything I love and hate about my father, why I have such mixed emotions when I remember him. He loved his children enough to protect them from thoughtless animals, yet something in him forced him to choose the worst possible way of dealing with the problem. And that choice haunted him for the rest of his life. He told me the story of Sarah and Abraham many times as I was growing up. It gnawed at him, I could tell.

Dad was a complex guy, and my feelings for him are equally complex. I’ve noticed that many of my stories are basically therapy as I attempt to reconcile my conflicted feelings about him.

Perhaps there’s a way to incorporate the story of Sarah and Abraham into the story I’m trying to tell.

On 04 May 2004 (07:50 PM),
Virginia said:

Maybe it has something to with the fact that
your dad’s dad loved to tease animals. Your dad may have liked them inside but didn’t know how to deal with animals, if the animals needed to be delt with.

On 04 May 2004 (07:50 PM),
tammy said:

My dad shot dogs all the time. We’d bring home a stray and he’d let it stay until it started dragging stuff around the yard or causing some sort of other trouble and first thing you know, we’d come home from school to find the dog was gone. Pop had shot it. Every spring he drowned all the new barn kittens. In the spring we’d have as many as 25 cats around there. Into the bag they’d go along with a heavy brick and that was the last of them.

We could name the meat in the fridge; what pet was wrapped in each package of hamburger or steak. We ate the bunnies, we ate the chickens, we ate our pigs, we ate our cows. We even ate the bear that came to the orchard to steal the fruit we ate. I was traumatized by none of this. It was just the way things were.

On 04 May 2004 (07:52 PM),
tammy said:

We posted at the same time mother. Didn’t know you were on now.

On 04 May 2004 (08:41 PM),
Virginia said:

Tammy, I honestly believe you are going to be the ruin of me!

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