10 March 2005

New best friend

Many thanks to Bookslut for pointing out Jesse Kornbluth's article, "Why I Steal":

I found myself teaching screenwriting to undergraduates at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Rather than ask my students to write the "what I did last summer" essay as a way of revealing themselves as students and writers, I suggested that they list their three favorite book and tell me why they chose them. "Take 15 minutes," I said.

Half the class looked stricken. I didn't understand why until I read their papers. For them, "reading" and "required" tended to find themselves in the same sentence. Books were, at best, objects that could be adapted into screenplays. Or, in a screenplay, books were things you put on shelves, with clues inside that were revealed when some dweeb in a tweed sport coat with elbow patches absentmindedly plucked out a volume. As for reading for pleasure, that wasn't happening. And never had, it seemed.

This was terrifying. Out of ignorance or laziness or a self-confidence so massive that it was beyond delusional, these kids seemed to think they were going to show up at their keyboards and crank out 125 pages of totally original material.

They weren't planning to steal at all.

This, as professional writers know, is madness.

Me? I had started writing for money at 16—and, from the beginning, I stole. I didn't need T.S. Eliot's endorsement of theft ("Minor poets imitate, great poets steal") to make me feel I was doing the right thing. Literary appropriation was in my DNA. And, I would argue, in the DNA of all writers who see this work more as a calling than as a career.

Writers--real writers--are formed by their reading. It can be vast, it can be selective. But at some moment, the process freezes. Heroes emerge. And then the writer sees himself/herself as an upholder and extender of the convictions and style of those heroes. For me, the gods are Johnson, Flaubert, Dickens, de Maupassant and Orwell. And the catalytic moment was when Orwell praised "prose like a windowpane"—right there I found a mantra.

Annie Dillard discusses this idea in The Writing Life (which I'll quote as soon as I'm within reach of my copy)...

Anyhow, discovering Kornbluth's Head Butler made my entire week.

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