A physical description of the common cuckoo, formerly the European cuckoo, includes the word “grayish.”
And it is a grayish bird; the common cuckoo has a grayish head (grayish meaning gray like unpolished silverware in the back of a kitchen drawer), grayish wings (grayish meaning the gray of a storm cloud sitting on the precipice of action), and a grayish belly (grayish meaning white and charcoal striped across the body). It’s believed that the call of the cuckoo is a sign of spring, and is the British equivalent of Groundhog Day. You’ve probably heard the famous “koo-koo” imitated by the appropriately named German cuckoo clocks.
The common cuckoo is a brood parasite, meaning it lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. The hen cuckoo waits for the host bird to lay her eggs, then the cuckoo flies down, pushes one egg out, and lays her own single, gigantic egg. The process takes about ten seconds. After the chick hatches, it will push its adoptive brothers and sisters out of the nest to ensure it will get enough food—cuckoos are much larger than their host species.
If I flip through one of my writing textbooks, I will find writing exercises in the back of the chapters. Almost all of them ask me to steal. One suggests writing a story about a mythical creature in the modern day (a centaur jockey, for example), and another tells me to take a poem and rewrite it as a short piece of fiction. Instructors have given me similar advice during my stint as an academic: “It’s OK to sound like more famous writers right now; copying them is good practice for finding your own voice. It teaches you style and rhythm and word choice.” And believe me, I have done my fair share of “borrowing:” I’ve borrowed the abruptness of Hemingway, the hilarity of Sedaris, the absurdity of Palahniuk; they are my literary heroes, giants I gaze up at and long to be. And robbing their nests has been helpful. It did all the things my mentors said it would. My heroes guided my words, criticized them, improved them. “Borrowing” has made me a better writer.
However, I am also the product of a society that values “originality.” Being the first at something, being the originator, having your thing, is something I was raised on, like “eat your vegetables” and Stranger Danger. Every character on every after-school special had their thing; there was The Musician, The Poet, The Comedian, The Dancer. There used to be a show on the Disney Channel called Lizzie McGuire, and in one episode, Lizzie’s best friend Miranda becomes convinced that she is The Actress. She gets a part in the school play, reads and re-reads her script, practices day and night…and she is lousy with a capital L. When Miranda finally realizes how bad she is, she becomes incredibly depressed and questions her entire existence the way teenagers often do. But Miranda realizes that it’s OK not to be The Actress, because deep down inside, she was actually The Singer. This taught me that everyone has a natural ability that they’re narrowly defined by, and it’s a fool’s errand to pursue anything but that ability. So the idea of copying someone, even to ultimately become a more unique artist, seems inauthentic and tacky.
This is a recent notion of individuality; copyright has only existed since the 17th century, and was a reaction to the printing press. All of a sudden, images and words could be massed produced with the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of people. Things were being produced without regulation and without compensation. Suddenly, lots of money was being lost, and the rights of the artist were held in higher regard. But before the “individual artists,” standing lonely and undisturbed by influence on an island of creativity and inspiration, it was common for artists to overlap in theme, subject, and content. How many naked, well-proportioned Venuses have their been? How many Judiths holding partially-decapitated heads? How many musicians have sung Somewhere Over The Rainbow? These different versions are all the same, and these different versions are all different.
I’m a common cuckoo. To nurture my own development, I steal into the nests of other artists and lay my creative eggs. What is born of this unspoken partnership looks like mine; we’ll call it grayish in appearance. Yet it’s not just mine anymore. It’s been touched and raised by that other entity, and now it shimmers in foreign reds and indigos, caught somewhere between originality and murder.
This submission is the first of E.W.W. Christman’s to be featured on RASCAL. Hope there is more to come.