A Radiohead song. From In Rainbows. A phrase that got me. “Your eyes, they turn me.”

Something about that phrase. Something evocative; something like the unexpected uses of words I try to achieve in my own writing.

Made me think.

Thom Yorke returns to certain ideas again and again. Allusions to oceans pop up frequently. David Byrne has his own faves, seeded through the body of his work.

We all do.

We strive for freshness; inventiveness. We try to take the page to places that we have never gone. We try for words that surprise our inner writer-ear. The best thing that can happen to us (well, one of the best, anyway) is to look back and be astonished that, yes indeedy, the marvelous passage we’re seeing did come out of us.

But sometimes our own brains cheat us.

By accident, by unconscious design—or sometimes through shameless self-indulgence—we borrow from ourselves. I remember looking back at my first novel, published in the 80s. Some cringingly bad stuff in there, the mistakes of a first-time novelist…but some pretty breathtaking stuff, too. And some stuff that was disconcertingly familiar: recently-evoked images that I thought I’d plucked whole and new from the air, there in a work from umpty years ago. Oh dear.

Where do these things come from, these images? Not from anything we’ve seen with our human eyes. Why, then, do they persist? Do we have the same word-angel sitting on our shoulders—an angel with a limited vocabulary? Does our doorway to the infinite open only on a view that’s a lot more limited than we thought? Or are we just being lazy?

I keep a list when I’m writing a novel. A list of words to watch out for. Keeping such a list lets me go back at the final polish and, with the help of the “Find” function, make sure I don’t overuse a phrase; that I’ve saved it for the most impactful place. But the occasional phrase I deliberately borrow from myself: That is part homage to a thing I loved, part realization that no one will notice but me. Unless, of course, I someday find myself with a crazy mental stalker (like myself) who is attentive to every word.

In the meantime, I’ll keep searching for the newness…and fooling myself that I’ve found it.

 

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