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Cryptoamnesia

Cryptoamnesia is a phenomenon that I find fascinating. Crypto comes from the Greek for hidden or secret and amnesia from…well forgetting. It’s a secretly forgotten memory, or rather a thought you think is your own but that you’ve really received from elsewhere. The phenomenon reveals that much of our creative process is subconscious, and that we often don’t know how our ideas rose up into the beam of our mind’s eye.

There have been a number of documented cases of the phenomenon in the literary world. Helen Keller was sued for plagiarism after writing The Frost King, which bore a striking resemblance to a book she’d read called The Frost Fairies, and Umberto Eco claimed of rediscovering the plot for The Name of the Rose from a book he had read as a young man. Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his own experience is particularly honest and detailed.  After he wrote Treasure Island, which had been composed in nightly serials read it to his family, he went back and browsed through a book by Washington Irving he felt had influenced him. What he discovered was that, instead of merely being influenced by the work, he had unconsciously ripped out much of the plot verbatim, all the while imagining it was a product of his own imagination.

It’s not really surprising that such instances occur. Memory is extremely malleable and our recollections are shuffled around and rearranged constantly; we revise them with each revisiting. If our subconscious brings to the surface some scrap of an idea or a plot, is it so surprising that sometimes our minds forget to add the footnote that tells us where it came from? Since our creative processes are generally hidden to us—unless we’re crazy buddhist monks who can watch their own thoughts unfolding like flowers—a lost attribution comes forward like a product of our own creative processes instead of the memory that is. But perhaps that is all the creative process is, the loss of the location of the creative inspirations which are then blended together. Everything is a remix after all. However it’s when our minds regurgitate instead of blend that that we stray into something more like unconscious plagiarism.

If you do any sort of writing or creative work this is terrifying. Unless someone else points it out, or you go back and reread the source from which your subconscious swiped it, you’ll never really know if what you’ve written is a product of your own mind or a mere literary recollection. You end up going back and looking at what you’ve written and seeing the influences in every little line, worrying that maybe all of it is something you’ve copied, that really you’ve just some hack who steals the ideas of other people.

I have a novella that’s morphed into a novel-in-progress, and I can trace the various sources that inform it, the streams that feed into its river. From Dostoevsky, I took the technique of abbreviating the names of people and places for poetical license, from Scott Pilgrim the placement in a Canadian city and geography, from Twelve Monkeys and Doctor Who fixed time loops,  from Kill Bill and Neuromancer and a thousand others the trope of a woman with a blade, and from Terminator a generous dose of future war, and messiah-hood (although I like to think I take the last more from the original source).

However, it was only when I started to reread Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, probably at least five years since the first time, that I realized how much of that book had been internalized and spilled out onto the pages that I was writing. I knew from the moment I put fingers to keyboard that Stephenson (with a ‘ph’ not a ‘v’) was a major influence, even if it was only the use of present tense. On reread I found it went much further than that.

In both the book and my work, scientific ideas and philosophical ideas are expounded by dialogues between the knowing and the unknowing, characters are described long after they are introduced, and gold and mercury pervade Stephenson’s mythos, while gold and silver pervade mine. His characters fight through a historical war with all the suffering involved, while mine reckon forward to one, with memories brought back through the slipstream of time. In both, a great emphasis is put on the importance of information: for him in codes and ciphers, for me in scientific theories and the limits of human understanding.

It alarmed me a little, when I saw how deep the roots went unconsciously. Now I won’t say I ripped off the book or anything, but the essence of many things was the same. I saw the same patterns produced in my mind by my own scribblings as by Stephenson’s, only lodged so deep that I forgot how they had been placed there.

However, there is nothing new under the sun, as someone wrote over two thousand years ago. Galileo laid out his scientific theories through dialogue, gold and silver permeate almost every culture’s mental baggage, and even the Greeks had their warrior women. Everything worth doing is built on other people’s work. We don’t create in a vacuum and ideas are not copyrighted. We take other people’s inventions, repackage them, modify them, and recombine them, hopefully in new and interesting ways. Hopefully you can add some interesting details along the sides that no one else has thought up, but you’ll still be trapped within the archetypes that drive all the stories we write, all those heros with a thousand faces.
In the end, I suppose, I can only try to write something good. Originality will have to be for other people to judge.

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