I just got home from a lovely time at nm’s.  I had a long talk with her across-the-street neighbor about Abigail Washburn, whose music I have only recently been introduced to, but who is a banjo player with kind of an old-timey feel.  And we were talking about a lot of stuff, but the part that stuck with me is the part about how an artist situates herself in context, how, when she’s doing a certain type of music, she shows the people who feel that music is “theirs” that she knows the songs she should know and can play them proficiently.

This is one of the things about music that I find so fascinating, how the performance of a song connects you to the people singing it, and not just singing it at that moment, but, when you know (and, for me, the knowing is what makes it meaningful), singing it in a way with everyone who’s sang it before.  In my family, for instance (and I know we’re not alone), we sing “Amazing Grace” at everything that requires a church–weddings, baptisms, funerals.  And we sing it still because it’s an opportunity for positive haunting, I think.  A chance to lift your voices with the living and the dead.

And, just to tangent, I have never been able to forgive Faith Hill for this as an artist–for taking on “Piece of My Heart” and not knowing Janice Joplin’s version.  And for giving interviews in which she seems to find that neither strange nor problematic that she could be an artist performing an iconic song and have no idea, that she gave no indication that she felt cheated by that.  And so I have no faith that she’s since gone on to hear Erma Franklin’s older version and I doubt that, should she hear it, she would have sense enough to feel cheated out of that until that moment.  And I just can’t trust an artist who doesn’t have sense enough to know that she’s entering the water way down river, that all the sounds she makes are based on other sounds.

But I was thinking about this in terms of writing, too, all the way home.  Because, on the one hand, there certainly has been a trend to retell iconic stories.  Ulysses is an echo of The Odyssey and we’ve seen lately novels that tell the stories of the father of the girls in Little Women and of Huck Finn’s dad and of Penelope.  And on and on and on.

But on the other hand, it’s not quite the same thing.  If you write fiction, no one’s going to demand you rewrite a story as faithfully as possible in order to prove your bonefides as a writer.

Or shoot, I guess Campbell would argue the opposite.

I don’t know.

I used to think that I couldn’t be a writer because I am not smart enough to be original.  But sometimes I wonder if originality isn’t over-rated.

6 thoughts on “Canon

  1. No one is truly original anymore. Many people are clever, but no one begins a piece of art without bringing years of experience inspired by other pieces of art. Additionally, the tales of human beings are never changing but we may find a fresh take (although I doubt it). This comment is not meant to lament the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, but to free an artist to go ahead and express themselves without the pressure of having to be “original”.

    And I confess I’m a little skeptical that Faith Hill claims she’s never Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart, but she probably felt that she would get less criticism for her vanilla take on a gritty song.

  2. Amber, I think you get my tone exactly. And, yeah, what you say is exactly what I’m struggling with.

    And I’m jealous of you singers, of how you can get up in front of a crowd of, say, octogenarians, and sing “You are my sunshine” and that it’s profoundly moving for the audience, that they all sing along, that suddenly they are remembering when their dads sang that to them or when they danced with their girls or when they figured out that it was a sad song.

    And when I’m out and about around town and I see people performing and I see what it means to the audience members who know when they throw in a Jimmie Rodgers number. Like I said, it feels like a haunting but in a good way, like the singer is opening up some space where we can all touch the live-wire soul of this town and this region and this country.

    And I want to be able to write like that–plugged in to our ancestors.

    But I’m not sure what that would look like in writing, for me. I’ve seen other folks attempt it, but I mean, what would I want to do that would replicate that?

    And I’m not sure.

  3. Hill said she’d never heard Joplin’s version of “Piece of My Heart”? For real? Where did she pick it up, then? I wish you hadn’t told us that. Because I always have given her credit for not doing Joplin’s version — for having her own turn on something so iconic. Not so?

    As to the rest of it, I think you’d have to go back tens of thousands of years, if not longer, to find truly original stories. Humans have been telling each other stories for a looooooong time now. Where we get to be original (or fail, of course) is in the way we tell them.

    Think of it like this: people have been performing (and listening to) Hamlet for over four centuries now. We don’t say, “oh, Hamlet, seen that, don’t bother with the new production.” We say, “X’s production was fantastic but Z’s really sucked, and Q made me think about Ophelia in a completely new way, but I think R messed up Polonius and Gertrude’s relationship just horribly.”

    And that’s just one play. We do it with all our stories, all the time.

  4. (me, terribly high on vicodin legally obtained and justifiably taken–yet no less potent…excuse misspellings, randomness and vague shitupperies.)

    This, this exact reason, is exactly 58% of the cause of me having dozens of first chapters of books written and discarded in old spiral notebooks, on old floppy disks and buried on harddrives from here to landfills in Tennessee and Indiana.

    The other 42% is–as I’ve just been coming to realise in this latest bout of hermitage (how perfect an address I have)–is that I am afraid of losing my dream by not being able to do it justice in waking life. Like in the dream I write things that touch people, entertain them and take them away from what is to what could be and that’s a gift not unlike delivering drugs or orgasms. But I fear that what I do will just be a bad lay and my work will be the bloated prostitute under the blue light. Or, the easier way to say it is “you can’t fail if you don’t try.”

    None of this means, of course, that I’m getting any better at trying. But I am coming to peace with that 58%. I’ve got one main story idea that’s been my major work in progress for the last 6 months. In browsing the Amazon Kindle store I found a “book” that had barebones similarity to my idea.

    This afternoon, no shit, your honour, was the first time that I’ve come across that and instead of wanting to give up said “well, I bet the way I tell it will be uniquely me and I’ll bring the touch of me to it and it will then touch the people who are more touched by me.” Not to pound the sex analogy into the ground but it’s like how the Indians (Hindi) have that teaching about which penises go with which vagina and some are hares, and some are hounds and some are another thing. I’m slowly starting to realise that even in copying there is a bit of originality that an author can bring to it.

    I hate writers’ workshops because they’re so predictible and it bores me. But I also love them in the same way my brother loves going to gay bars. It’s one of the few places where the people who have the same soul craving I have–different from 90% of the world–find each other. At the last workshop I went to I sat with a table of 5 other women I’d never met. I looked around at the other tables and chuckled about how one was old retired guys writing westerns, one was pot smoking loners writing screenplays, one was mystery writers, etc. As the workshop proceeded and everyone at the tables kept proving me right by talking about what they were working on the women at my table kept looking at me with a combination of fear and growing awe. Like I said, they’re predictable. Writers are very predictable people. I never told the rest of my table that I picked that one because we were the ones who had the best chance of getting something really great into the world if we could only get over our fear of ourselves. Because that is both super creepy and super arrogant. But there’s always at least one of those in every workshop. But I’m rambling as I knew I would.

    At that workshop the question for one of the published writers was “does anyone ever steal your ideas” and all the published writers looked at each other and started laughing and admitted that it happens all the time–with every book they write. And sometimes as they get to know each other they laugh over how he did this differently with the same idea or she did that better.

    I so crave being unique and loved for my specialness that it’s taken me for damn ever to get to the place where I can accept that other people share in the Great Unconscious and so our ideas echo across the ether but there is still enough specialness in me to make my spin on it interesting. I’m not all the way there yet. But I’m barfing all this out because I see what you say and what nm says and it speaks to me and it reminds me that I love you all because of how you teach me over and over again that there is originality and commonality in everyone and it’s even more beautiful when they intersect well.

    (me, going to the grocery store–someone else is driving–for the much needed fresh air and coca-cola and chocolate.)

  5. This weekend, I began to indocrinate pesimst into Harry Potter. He will never read the books (he doesn’t read, which is sad, but at least he doesn’t steal my current book like my ex always did), so I cued up the movie, holding close to the pause button, so I could correct the plot as we went along.

    He watched the first movie (and enjoyed it), then asked “so is he supposed to be Luke or Anakin?”

    And I replied “or Huck Finn.”

    And then he thought a moment and said “Or Jesus.”

    And I considered the story I’m writing for my kids and how the character in MY story fits into that list, and how his story is the same hero cycle as every other hero.

    So I think that my point is ALL stories, whether they’re sung or written, are probably the same song. Originality is only found our voice. And success in telling or singing is how close we stick to the original notes.

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