Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Inspiration, Prince, Wholesale Theft, and a Boss Reading Chair

Ah, wholesale theft. I'd forgotten all about it. I'm glad, though, that someone brought the idea up (see Matt's comments on the last post); glad to know that I'm not the only one who uses the technique! I find it to be an excellent way to unblock myself when I've hit a wall. I go back to the writers that inspire me and walk in the footprints they leave behind (if for no other reason than to avoid land mines). Sometimes it works: A story I wrote about the Molly Maguires found it's beginning in Aleksandar Hemon's "The Accordian." (It ended up more like Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek", but that might be beside the point.) The current albatross around my neck...er...I mean novel I'm working on (which, by the way, I should be working on as I type this...) finally found a shape once I read Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter.  Sometimes it doesn't: I am fairly certain that everything I've ever written has been my attempt to re-create Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, to very little success.

Successful or not, I still do it, though. I don't think I can help myself. Even if I just end up spending an evening re-reading the last few paragraphs of Joyce's "The Dead," or the last page of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or a few pages from someone like Ann Carson, or Joanna Scott (who is a criminally overlooked writer--ya'll should check out Arrogance or Tourmaline), I still feel like I've accomplished something, even if I don't write a word. Other writers have a way of recharging me, of reminding me of the potential of this art form. (Wow, is this getting rousing? I suddenly feel like watching standing up on my desk to yawp, a la Dead Poets Society). And since I've already come to the conclusion that my dreams are no good (or not nearly as good as Prince's), I have to turn to external sources from time to time.

Maybe this is, at least in part, a kind of answer to my previous question. As Salinger's Seymour Glass once pointed out to his brother, Buddy, "you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer" (oh my, the Salinger police are definitely coming after me now), so it is with me. Probably it's that way with every writer.  With anyone who has ever picked up a pen, or a paintbrush or a guitar or a camera. We were devouring what others did long before we tried our own hand at it. And when I am stuck, really floundering, I go right back to those people who made me want to write in the first place. Those people who made the whole thing seem so flippin effortless that I wanted to do the same (joke's on me, isn't it?).

I'm not saying that this is my only source of inspiration--I'd like to think that I can be one of those people who sees the story in the mundane things like tricycles and beaded bracelets--but it is one source. And a pretty damned good one, too. Prince has his sexy tiny purple velvety assless pants sexy sex dreams (which is how I imagine Prince's dreams to be), and that's great for him, but a reading chair can be just as useful.  (awww)



  1. EFF Blogger. I had this beautiful (ok, straight up crazy) response, and then Blogger says it can't post at this time. Again, I say, EFF Blogger.

  2. Mostly, my ramblings were about how I suffer from the same issue. How can you avoid it, though? We are all standing, or at least trying to get a boost up onto, the shoulders of giants. You see Melville and Joyce and Faulkner and Kerouac in Pynchon, and you can tease out the reference points for Pynchon's reference points and theirs ad infinitum. I'm interested in where the first "style" came from. But what a useless question. It's like asking where life came from. We'll never really know because we weren't there. We can guess, but we'll never know. What about Homer? He was just applying the genius of written technology (think about it--writing IS probably second in line after fire for the greatest inventions of all time) to make a record of an oral tradition. So maybe he is the first? Because you can see in all those who came after him that they not only stole his style, they stole his story, but they did something with it: they expanded upon it, made a whole history of it. And now we have Twilight. So, nice going, Homer. D'oh!

  3. All I know is that if I'm not reading, I won't be able to write. Nothing in, nothing out. And I have to be reading the right book or else it won't help. Don't know how I find the right book, but I always end up finding it. Of course, there are books scattered around the house, the first chapter or so read until I discover it's not what I'm looking for or need. Eventually, each one of those partially read books will be the book I'll need to write the next chapter.

  4. Partially-read and unread books -- my god, they're everywhere! Dwight Garner of the NYT Book Review admitted on the Paper Cuts blog (which I'd link to but in finding it, I'd blow my 20th view for the month and hit the pay wall) that he has an entire bookcase dedicated to books he wants to get around to or he's only partially read. Maybe not the case for him, but for me I fall into Nancy's category of "the right book at the right time" -- if it interferes or doesn't jibe with where my work's going, I tend to put it aside.

    But then there's the dark half of that equation -- the point when you feel all you're doing is copying from a particular style or theme and can't seem to break yourself from it, but it's the book or theme you know, the influence you love, and to NOT go back to that story or theme for inspiration seems impossible. I had a similar complex with the Gatsby "cluster stories" -- God knows I've got at least 15 false starts out there that may as well be takes on "Winter Dreams"...however, the reason they're called "cluster stories" is because all of them dealt with almost identical themes that wound up in Gatsby, and almost all of them use the same syntax and stylistic turns of phrase, etc -- in other words, Fitzgerald wrote the same stories over and over with slight variation. I'm circling back on myself here, but when's the time to say "enough is enough" and snip the umbilical cord? Do we ever?