HEY, THATíS MY STORY!
For the artist who is not a hack, there is something special and precious about his creation, a kind of personal relationship with what he has given birth to that is, in some ways, akin to having a child of his own. If his work is well received, it becomes a source of pride, a bulwark against the sense of lifeís meaninglessness and the human isolation he may have felt during his darkest hours. It gives hope, life, fulfillment, overpowers the emptiness which besieged him and first drove him to seek something more with his pen. On the other hand, if his work is rejected, unpublished, consigned to the trunk or desk drawer without a reader or a friend, it is as though he had died childless - or as though his beloved child had died young, leaving him alone in the shadows of something beautiful that never had a chance to grow into the fullness of its beauty. The pain and sense of loss, especially after repeated failure, is heart-rending.
When the failure to publish, or to be heard, or seen, is combined with the success of a work that is eerily similar to what he produced or intended - a work created by someone else who reaps, in his place, the sunshine of the day that was to be his - the sense of loss may be laced with a sense of outrage, despair, bitterness, and even cosmic betrayal. It is as though one had had a beautiful child, who was kidnapped, stolen by another, to be given another name, and raised in another home, to call someone else "father."
In cases where oneís work actually has been stolen - as happens frequently with songs, scripts, jokes, etc. (anything of value to cutthroat competitive artists) - legal sanctions may be taken for copyright infringement, with varying chances of success depending on oneís own documentation and power relative to the offender. However, in many cases, the offending work does not actually represent a case of copyright infringement, but rather, a case of parallel creation, in which another person reaches the same idea, concept, or style on his own, not as a result of imitation or plagiarism, but as the result of his own creative drive, absorbing some of the same influences, impressions, and imperatives from his environment as those which propelled the upstaged artist to do what he did. In the same way that the Mayas and the Egyptians built pyramids, apparently independently, without any contact between their civilizations (though some esoteric theorists disagree) - works of striking similarity may sometimes arise out of different hearts and minds, with no connection other than the common human faculties and sensibilities which led them to go to the same place.
If one is "beaten to the punch" by a work that is strikingly similar in design to oneís own, it is, of course, hard to go forward with oneís own production, which might then seem to be derivative, imitative, even a violation of copyright (for example, in the case of a very close melody). The way oneís work will be received changes in light of the fact that it no longer seems original. Its impact will be diminished - the trumpet has already sounded for something else - and the respect it is capable of drawing to itself will be severely curtailed. In this way, the door may be closed on something that means a lot to one: on something that one has already spent a lot of time on, and invested a lot of oneís emotions in. "Beaten to the punch" - in boxing those words may well spell "knockout", the end of the fight, a dream lying crumpled on the canvas. In art, they can be just as devastating.
In my own experience as a creator, I have been "beaten to the punch" several times, and each time stung me badly, put a hurt on me that took time and re-infatuation - with other creative projects - for me to get over. There was the time The Boys From Brazil came out, and preempted a story I had written, which though it was quite different in many ways, nonetheless had its conceptual thunder stolen by that work about the clandestine cloning of a famous individual with important political implications. Then there was the time I heard one of my melodies being sung by Tom Petty on the radio. "Damn!" I cursed. A nice song that had to be pulled out of my repertoire. (I believe he got the tune, independently, the same way that I did, through working out some natural harmonies while playing a basic chord progression.) And now, just recently, itís happened again: this time with the Hollywood movie Birth, starring Nicole Kidman (2004). The story bears a superficially striking resemblance to a short story of mine, Too Young, Too Soon, which was published in my 2002 collection of New Age/Fantasy stories, Imagination, In The House! At first, I wondered how it was that the producers of this movie had got their hands on a copy of my little-known story, and reshuffling the deck of characters, come out with this major cinematic production pre-empting the breakthrough of my own, dearly beloved tale - well, beloved by me - which I had always thought had interesting, low-budget movie possibilities. In my story, the main drama centered around the possible reincarnation of a young manís girlfriend, who had died in an automobile accident - and the difficulty of the young man in dealing with the child who seemed to be the reincarnation of his girlfriend, but was now, because of her age, out of his reach. In Birth, it was a woman (Nicole Kidman) who had lost her husband, who later seemed to have returned in the form of a young boy, in some ways haunting and troubling her, in other ways offering her muchly-needed hope and comfort. The drama, in Birth, revolved around the effect of the child on the womanís relationship with her current lover/would-be husband, and on her social position in a skeptical, incredulous world; while, in my story, it centered on the tension between the manís feelings of love, and the unconquerable reality of the newly-created age difference which now stood between him and his former girlfriend: on the terrible clash between his longing to relive the past, and the inhospitality of the present, which would not allow the past to return in its old form.
When Birth came out - (I first saw terrible hints of its approach in movie sections in the local papers) - I knew, at once, that it would be very painful to see; yet I also knew, just as clearly, that I must see it. I had to see if it was my movie - and if it was, what they had done with it. And so, one day, I reluctantly boarded the N train and took it to an out-of-the-way theater on the east side, where I was momentarily tempted to watch Alexander the Great instead, till, recovering my resolve, I finally bought the ticket and went into the darkness to await the beginning of the theft of my dream: final cosmic proof of my irrelevance - or just the fatality of my tardiness.
Almost from the very first, powerful emotions hit me. The man running through the beautiful white snow, in Central Park - into the dark tunnel, where he died - the tunnel, symbolic of the passage between life and death, which so many have reported from their NDEs, and also of the birth canal: the way back, from death to life. Tears started then, with the snow, the tunnel, the music, I felt like I myself was dying with the character - they made a movie about this, and itís not mine! - and I wondered - will I be reborn, will my dead creative life be resurrected like heís about to be, or will I just die? I shifted about in my chair, one of only two people in the theater, and watched the first appearance of the mystery child - Nicole Kidmanís former husband, now reborn and seeking her in his childís form, still loving her in spite of the chasm of death which had separated them, and the chasm of time, which made their new togetherness an even more agonizing form of separation. There were differences in the approach and sensibility of the movie from my short story, I found; it wasnít really my story, I told myself, just an unfortunate and preemptive creative coincidence.
As I sat there in the dark, scrutinizing the movie from the point of view of a rival creator, I also let myself open up to the experience of the movie as something independent of me, with a right to live, I let the artificial night of the theater and the power of the music and images, so much bigger than my tiny, unknown story, sweep me along, I fell into this movie more completely than any I had ever watched before, including movies far superior to it , because it seemed to be a meeting place between me and the Universe, between my dreams and reality, between life and death, which is where life at last becomes real. How often the imagination takes us away from life, steals little bits and pieces of life to make a form of beautiful sleep. But now, on the screen of what I had not done, I suddenly found myself awakening - awakening to who I had wanted to be and who I was not, to what I had conceived of doing and what I had not, I found myself in a chair in the dark watching my failure, and falling towards something that was not my failure, but a feeling, made out of loneliness, that I was not alone among men, or in the Universe. Watching movies in the dark, in a public place - beyond the content, the complexity of each individual film - has a primitive, simple, recurring element to it. It is like watching the moon in the night sky - mesmerizing, taking one beyond oneself. In the midst of my pain, in the midst of watching the movie that was almost mine, I slowly realized that I was beginning to experience an epiphany.
I remembered then, not happily, but profoundly, what a good friend had once told me. "There are things that have to be said: stories that have to be written, paintings that have to be painted. If you do not do it - if you do not, for whatever reason, bring your concept to fruition, do not materialize your vision - the Universe will give the task to someone else. And it will be done without you. You will be left behind, because it was more important that what you had to bring was brought, than that you were the one who brought it." Fresh tears began to roll from my eyes, as this point drove itself like a nail into my heart. Thank you darkness, for sheltering my breakdown! Iíve been supplanted, I thought, replaced. I let the Universe down, my failure to get my act together has made me obsolete. The image came to me of millions of sperm cells, all swimming to fertilize the egg of some idea, some project, great or small, some part of the fabric of what is meant to be. And suddenly I saw myself, not as "The Great Artist", the one coming with the masterpiece, the revelation, the gift, but as one of many artists, one of many souls, swimming through the sea of the world to try to fertilize the egg of something beautiful and needed. Part of a team, though we might see each other as rivals, and though the victory of one might spell the defeat of all the others. But from another perspective - perhaps one only activated by defeat and death, mere consolation for the vanquished, some would say - I suddenly reached the understanding, for one moment at least, in the midst of all this sense of loss and pain, that I had not lost by being "beaten to the punch", but that I had actually won - as every sperm cell wins when another fertilizes the egg that it tried to reach first. The end product was not the same as what I would have produced, but the Universe succeeded in having the idea developed and put forth, injected into the consciousness of the world, and I was a part of its great impulse, working through multiple human minds and hearts, to see that it was done. It was an idea greater than my muteness, and it got through in spite of me.
Intellectually, this enlightenment or self-apology might seem convoluted or masochistic, but in actuality, it came from a spiritually powerful moment of accepting a reality which could not be changed, and from seeing things from a higher level - and from feeling things too deeply to remain separate from the Universe, behind the walls of my wounded ego. When the ego bleeds enough, it has visions of beyond. And suddenly, this terrible experience of defeat and replacement became a potent experience of re-absorption by the Universe, of Oneness with something greater than myself - a heartís peek at Nirvana.
The tears kept rolling, as the darkness of the theater held me in its arms. How fitting that, during a movie about reincarnation, I felt myself dying and being reborn! But the conflict was still not over. Moments of suspicion surfaced again, interrupting my enlightenment. "Hey, that scene is too similar! Maybe they did read my story, after all, and rip me off!" Between 2002 and 2004, would there have been enough time to read my story, change it around, get a script and producer, shoot, edit, promote and distribute a movie? There was the scene of Nicole Kidman and the kid, Sean, in the bathtub, which was strongly reminiscent of a scene in my story in which the kid, Alana, wanted the protagonist to take a bath with her: both exploring the tension resulting from intimate memories or familiarities from past lives, which are no longer proper in the context of the present. Then, there was a scene near the end of Birth, with Sean in a tree, with seeming implications of impending suicide - and the cut to the birth of a new child in a hospital, seeming to confirm our fears - that reminded me, quite strongly, of the scene in which Alana and the protagonist of my story were in a car crash - followed by a scene of two children, who readers might expect were them, reborn, and playing in a park. Hmm, very similar I thought. Also very hard to prove that an intellectual theft had taken place.
Ultimately, I remained undecided about whether there had been any contact between my story and the project that resulted in Birth. Although the concurrence of those two scenes was quite interesting, there is also a lot of material researched and written by Dr. Ian Stevenson and others regarding past-life memories in children which could have served as the inspiration for generating the project. In all events, the movie was done, my thunder was stolen, and that was that. Bitterness seemed a less powerful way of mourning than enlightenment. I was left, in the end, when all the pain, the suspicion, the helplessness had played itself out, with the esoteric imprint of myself as a valuable and beautiful creative soul working towards things that others are also working towards: one sperm cell of many, fighting to be first, it is true, because that motivation will help one of us to get there on time - but ultimately, not an enemy of those who would eclipse me, but rather, a brother, even of those whose pen might kill me: because itís not about them or me, but about what the Universe wants to get done through one of us. Or all of us.
Coming out of the movie theater, back into the hard light of the day, I felt new, made over. Iíd cried the old me out. And yet, I was also still the same. I could accept the "theft"/ "preempting" of my story, and feel more connected to the Universe because of my acceptance, at the same time as I felt incensed not to let other potentials of my soul wither away because of my passivity or romanticized forms of ineffectiveness. I simultaneously rose above my former world, enlightened beyond winning, and returned to it, more determined to win than ever. Isnít that what being a sperm cell is all about?
A NOTE ON ORIGINALITY:
As a possibly crucial footnote to this story, I would just like to bring up the following idea: that artists are often deterred from approaching certain themes or developing certain material because they think that it has already been done. (For example, should Birth preempt anything further I might wish to do with Too Young, Too Soon? Or, if someone has an idea for a story about a cataclysm involving the destruction of the earth by impact with a comet, meteor, or planet, should the fact that When Worlds Collide has already been written preempt him from writing his story, even if he would develop it in a different way?) If an idea that arises in oneís heart is real, powerful, and comes from oneís real nature and expressive desires, rather than being purely imitative, or copycat-inspired, I would encourage the artist to go ahead with his project. This does not mean to violate copyright, but to dare to go into territory that is not "original" in terms of being the first to explore a certain idea or theme, but is original in terms of being an authentic expression of oneís own emotions and perspective. I donít feel that other works that come close to doing what one intends should be able to act as a perpetual forcefield, deflecting one away from oneís own true artistic calling. Where oneís heart dictates, there one should go. In this vein, it is well to remember the case of William Shakespeare, whose themes were almost always based on historical or other sources not of his own invention. In that way, they were decidedly "unoriginal." For example, Romeo and Juliet comes straight from the Greek myths, from the tragic love story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Thank God, Shakespeare didnít say, "Itís been done, I canít go there." It was in the crafting of his own version, in the powerful language and magnificent telling, that his "Romeo and Juliet" became original - the genuine and authentic expression of a true artist.
The world of art is truly one of beauty, struggle, and heartbreak, but for those who know it, who truly belong to it, there is no other way. It is the land we must live in and die in, be fools in and sometimes find enlightenment in, or because of. Always, it is in this world or on the edges of this world, that we are meaningful. Sometimes, we are crushed by what we cannot leave. Sometimes, from our helplessness, comes power. I write for you, you write for meÖ
God Bless You, my Co-Creators - my Family!
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