This is a Conversation, Not a Speech

Rusalka by Ruth Sanderson

Notice the lovely painting to the left, “Rusalka,” by the amazing artist, Ruth Sanderson. I was reminded of it by a FB post by the writer Theodora Goss, said post being about a different matter altogether (we can discuss serendipity on another day). But I recognized the painting she’d referenced immediately. Partly because I’m fond of Sanderson’s work, but mostly because that very painting was the original illustration for “The Swan Troika,” (Realms of Fantasy, February 2011) my final story in that much missed magazine (Seriously. Show me a current fantasy magazine with the same ecumenical spirit toward the genre that ROF had).  If you’ll look in the left background, the guy in the funny-looking sleigh is Pyotr on his way to his fateful meeting with the rusalka in question.

Ahem. Yes, I’m getting off of the subject. Of which there is one, implied in the blog title. Ursula Le Guin once said something to the effect that a story is just marks on wood pulp (or pixels on a screen) until someone reads it. That reading is an act of creation itself and the story isn’t complete until it’s read. I have no argument with that. We want people to read our work, complete it, create their own inner vision to echo the one in our own heads. It won’t be the same vision, but that’s kind of the point. There aren’t just two sides to every story, there are as many sides as there are readers for that story, and the more the merrier.

Sometimes, though, it goes even beyond that. “Rusalka” exists because I wrote a story and the editors at ROF commissioned an illustration of it. You cannot fathom how pleased I was when I saw its original appearance in ROF. After all, I’m no artist. I could never have created my vision of that scene the way Sanderson did. Instead, she showed me hers. I was and am thrilled.

I will now contrast that with an incident from a writer’s group I was involved with. The Heavenly Fox had just been published and another writer in the group really liked it. So much so, that he announced that he was going to write a Springshadow story of his own, at which point I was forced to stand on his head until the impulse passed. Okay, not literally. But you get the idea. I was not thrilled. A little flattered, sure. But not thrilled.

So why the difference? Well, one is an act of re-creation. The other was copyright infringement. As in any conversation, you know when one party has crossed the line. Granted, it’s a fine line. Or rather a tightrope that we all walk when it comes to what happens to a story once it’s out in the world. In a sense, to send a story out into the world is to cede control of it. Legally it may belong to you, but practically? Things will happen that you didn’t count on. My own opinion goes beyond legalities though. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care who has the right to continue the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. So far as I’m concerned, that series ended when Douglas Adams died. Sure, I know that’s unrealistic. Knowing that doesn’t change the way I feel.

Yes, reading is a creative act in itself, and stories were designed to be read. That’s kind of the point of them, but another thing they are is a conversation between the writer and reader. It’s an act of communication that, in the right context, creates something grander than the sum of its parts, witness that painting. Experience that a few times and you won’t wonder why we get cranky when someone tries to turn the conversation into a monologue.

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