Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland
A book I'm working on is set in this town.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Good artists copy; great artists steal

This is, supposedly, a quote by Picasso, though no one knows exactly when he said it...or even if he did...and it's probably a play on T.S. Elliot's comment in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism -- "...(I)mmature poets imitate; mature poets steal..." I knew what he meant -- that good artists copy other artists, develop work based on their betters' styles and such, while great artists focus on the object of their art and take from its essence everything they need to remake it into whatever they perceive it to be.

That works in writing, too. You copy the style of a writer you like until you develop your own...if you do. Like Judith Krantz copied Jackie Collins, who copied Jacqueline Susan, who copied Grace Metalious, who copied Erskine Caldwell...and on and on. But when it comes to great writing, the whole idea of theft changes into something more than mere interpretation of an object's reality. It involves real theft...not of something physical but of the truth in the soul of that object or story.

So many teachers and advisers tell writers to work with that they know and use the likes of Willa Cather and James Heller and John Steinbeck to show how that works. Willa lived on the Nebraska plains growing up and colored her stories about pioneers in the last quarter of the 19th Century with that background. James Heller's experiences during WWII became the basis for Catch 22, and Steinbeck's own youth filled his novel, East of Eden. Great writers, all of them, but what is rarely mentioned is how these books are filled with stories that were stolen, not specifically lived in.

I don't know if I can put this in a way that will make sense, but a great writer steals moments from others and forms them into his own. Stories and gossip and details gleaned during conversations overheard and hammers of speech and attitudes...things a good writer can merely fit into a framework that reveals the story.

A great writer lets these stories and details and such devise a framework to suit if they were building themselves a home to their own specifications and comforts and needs and dreams and desires and fears...and when the last nail is driven and the final coat of paint is dried, they dwell in it, happily. Even if the structure is tragic...even if it is wrong and criminal...they settle in and will not move. Tolstoy knew this. As did Shakespeare and Thackeray and Voltaire. You can feel the stories expand beyond anything one man could experience unto himself, even as they remain honest and true.

When I build my stories, I steal everything I can. From people, places, things, you name it. Does that mean I think I'm a great writer? That's not for me to decide. Sometimes I read what I have written after a time and cannot believe I wrote it. Other times I cannot believe how false and juvenile it seems, and become embarrassed. My screenplays, most especially, cause me grief in how I copied rather than appropriated far too often.

My best work grows from when I steal someone else's story and mold it into my own form of reality then let it blossom and grow. Let it shoot off in directions I'm not ready for or happy with. And the hardest part of working with that is not suffocating it. Sometimes the roots turn out to be shallow and the branches die. Sometimes I get lazy and copy another's way of dealing with the same situation...and find I have only wasted my time as the truth of the story kept going in the direction it needed, and now I have to play catch-up.

I don't know if I'll ever be a great writer. I've had people tell me there's no way in hell I could be. Not enough control over my style or grammar. I've had others remind me of how Steven King says you have to edit and cut and kill your darlings to make a good book. And maybe that's true...for him. But I keep thinking of my argument with a film professor in college.

We had a film society that showed old movies, and I ran the projector for a year. 16mm prints that had to be manually switched from one projector to the other when a reel was done. I saw movies I would never have been able to see anywhere else -- things like Even Dwarves Started Small and The Jackal of Nahueltoro and Heart of Glass.

It's also where I saw Grand Illusion. Set in WWI, it's about French prisoners of war in German POW camps, the indomitability of the human spirit, and how an aristocrat is treated with different civility from a mechanic and a Jewish scholar. The mechanic and Jewish scholar escape and are sheltered by a German farm-woman whose husband and brothers and all the men she knew were killed in the war.

I loved the film. Felt it was near perfect. My film professor -- Dr. Manfred Wolfram -- said it was too long. Said the whole section with the farm woman could have been cut and the movie would have lost nothing. I vehemently disagreed. Up until that point, the film was a good story; with that bit added in, it became poetry. It became great. It started me on the belief that a great film director must have something of a poet in his soul for his work to truly sing. So few have.

I ran into some of this same "too long" attitude with Bobby Carapisi. A couple of people who read it said they felt the story was complete with just Eric's and Bobby's tales, that Alan's wasn't needed. But to me, it was still lacking something...and adding in a vague explanation as to why Alan was like he was was what it took to make it whole. And for that, I stole a couple of stories I had a glancing involvement with...and molded them, using my own DNA to keep them malleable...and for the first time really felt like a novelist instead of just a screenwriter writing books.

I'm feeling the same way about The Vanishing of Owen Taylor. In my last pass through it, I found very little I wanted to rework or change or adjust or remove. I'm finally at the point where all I want to do is polish it till it shines. It's long -- over 112,000 words -- but everything is in it for a purpose, and to cut them would throw off the balance. And this makes me feel powerful enough to think I may know what I'm doing.

And finally...finally...that I will be able to do justice to Place of Safety, because I want that story to be great, and I am ready to steal whatever I must for it, now.

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