Monthly Archives: July 2013

“Steal It and Make It Your Own” or Why Reading Good Writing Matters

When I was an undergrad at UCONN, I balanced my major in English with a minor in Acting (much to my advisor’s chagrin). Although I’ve forgotten a lot about those years, I can still hear Professor Jerry Krasser saying, “Steal it and make it your own.” That was his advice to anyone attempting creative work: find the best work out there and then adapt it for yourself. Of all the things I heard from my professors, I think that was my favorite. I learned many years later that this is a variation on the quotation often attributed to Picasso that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” I like Jerry’s phrasing better—it doesn’t include so much judgment.

As an actor I do a fair amount of conscious stealing from people around me—gestures, voices, ticks, habits—I consider them all fair game. Making them my own is pretty simple because I’m using my body and my voice to perform the stolen gesture or vocal quality. They are automatically filtered through me, so even if I try just to imitate, I can’t. With writing it’s less clear: I know what the stealing part is; it’s the making it my own that I’m still working on. I’m still finding my own voice, so when I make a conscious effort to steal from another writer, it doesn’t always go well. I sent this post as a draft to Emily, and she suggested that there’s something about the style and voice that facilitates the transformation of the stolen into the own, which makes sense. The tone and voice are the writer’s presence in the work just like my voice and body are my presence on stage.

I’ve seen little hints of how this exchange might work. Like all writers I love to read—it’s the best source for things to steal and make my own, after all. Lately I’ve noticed that whether I mean for it to happen or not, what I read has a tendency to show up in my writing. While Emily makes lists of words that tickle her, words that she wants to find room for in her writing, that’s not a habit that I have developed—except when I work on Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven. Then I make note of phrases that Jane Austen uses and I found a wonderful website that is so useful to anyone writing Jane Austenesque books. But in my other work, I pretty much just wing it.

Or so I think. The truth is that when I’m reading, my unconscious mind acts like a magpie collecting shiny things: gathering words and phrases, catching on to rhythms and patterns. When I first drafted this post, I chose the mynah bird because it, too, likes to collect shiny things. But as Emily pointed out, the mynah is best known for its ability to hear a sound then reproduce it exactly. The magpie makes new objects with its stolen treasure. And that seems to be how my subconscious mind operates. Some of those shiny things turned up in a post I wrote recently over on my own blog—I kept noticing rhythms stolen from Emily’s work and unconsciously adapted for mine. I was pleased with those little bits because I think Emily is a wonderfully poetic writer, but had I tried to imitate her (as I have in the past), the results would have been disappointing at best, embarrassing at worst. I am no mynah bird.

On the other hand, on the few occasions that I have tried to finish poorly written books, I’ve seen how they influence my writing, too. It turns out my magpie mind can’t tell the difference between a polished diamond and a broken paper clip. Whatever I’m reading influences whatever I’m writing. I don’t want to steal crap and call it my own. I only want to steal beautiful things.

So, with this aim in mind, I turn to writers I admire: Kate Atkinson for the quiet beauty of her language, J. K. Rowling for the mastery of her characterizations, and Emily June Street for the musicality and rhythms of her prose. Great writers teach us how to be better writers because they give us lots to steal and make our own.

A Rebel Inside

I like to think about what it would have been like to live in a different era in time and place. There are so many layers to this imaginary game: what would you wear, what would you eat, what would everyday life be like? What would you fear? What would you believe about how the world worked? I’m curious about all the details—how is food prepared and produced, how do people get from point A to B, what do women do about their menstrual cycle, what happened to people who rebelled against customs, social rules, and stated laws?

But that’s just the superficial layer of my interest. What I’m really fascinated by is how an external world intersects with an internal world. So often it feels as if we are almost entirely determined by our circumstances—we are whatever we are born into—the world around us shapes everything from our opportunities to our beliefs to our aspirations. It can feel unimaginable to consider something beyond that—some internal essence that is eternal, out of time and place. I like to give my characters that internal space. I don’t even know what to call it. Confidence? No, although that’s part of it. An iconoclastic bent? Yes, but. A rebellious nature? Closer. It has to do with an awareness of being the driver in one’s own life, an awareness of being able to choose one’s path.

That’s not to say that external circumstances have no determining force. They always do, and time and place have all kind of ramifications about the choices available to a character. But I’m interested in the point of friction between the outside and the inside, how that internal space rubs into the expectations of time and place. This can play out in so many ways: the rejection of God or family, the internal resistance against oppressive forces, the casting off of limiting notions of beauty or femininity or sexuality, and of course, transgressions in action—theft, sin, and murder. The friction itself is what makes it interesting, but without that internal core of strength inside a character, there isn’t any psychological depth to the rebellion.

I’m also interested in the acquiescence to these external pressures, the knowing surrender—I do it because they tell me to do it. I do it because I am afraid. I do it because I cannot stand the idea of the consequences if I don’t. Or, my all time favorite, I do it because I want to be loved. This would be the character who chooses the easy, proscribed path because they are concerned with pleasing others: they want their family to approve of them, or they want to win the love of an idealized other. Ultimately, if the character has the internal essence—and they always do, or we wouldn’t be reading about them—they get into conflict between pleasing self and pleasing others, and we get all kinds of interesting fallout.

This comes up because I’m writing a story about a rebellious girl in a stifling culture. It’s actually not that far off from the social circumstances most women lived in before the Feminist movements of the Twentieth Century, and many women in less forward-thinking places continue to live in today. Women in my constructed world can’t own property, vote, or participate in politics, athletics, or any public sphere. They are largely confined to the home, and their primary value in society is as a means for men to exchange wealth or power in marriage brokering.

My heroine has a very modern mind, a mind that doesn’t accept the idea that her only worth is as a wife, mother, and housekeeper. This is one reason this story is set in a fantasy world. I felt her way of thinking was almost impossible to set in Regency or Victorian London. There just wouldn’t have been the possibility of her being this iconoclastic. She wouldn’t have had any concept of the freedoms she needed to think belonged to her by right. So I made up my own city for her to live in, because I wanted her to have this strength inside her, this refusal to accept what the culture she lives in proscribes for her. The results have been entertaining, for me, at least. The book is called The Velocipede Races, and should be released by Luminous Creatures in Fall 2013.