Four of the five years I spent selling myself to creative writing programs, I used this gem in my personal statement: I am overwhelmed by my bookshelf. Everything that’s been written in the canon of literature has said all there is to say. I do not purport to say anything new. It’s a wonder why they rejected me. Who wants a writer who thinks they have nothing new to say? Especially when that writer goes on to swing a metaphor as dull as a spoon: My aim as a writer is the toil of the porter… All I strive to do is haul my bookshelf up a floor.
However much it hurts to read that conjured bit of word magic, ten years removed, I wonder if it’s true. Do I have anything new to say?
Josh Ritter spoke candidly of a phenomenon I’ve been experiencing while at work on something that looks and smells like a novel in the same way a pickle resembles a cucumber. He called it feeding the monster, “a creature so voracious… it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path.” The sanitized notion of this is probably “research”. That process of pouring through books and essays and poems and personal experiences for information that you can use to fashion a story. But how do I use that?
A writer I deeply admire once told me about a particular line in their story, “I stole that from Denis Johnson. Here’s a writing tip: steal anything you can.” My head must of cocked at a visibly affronted angle because it immediately was clarified. “Obviously don’t rip it off verbatim. But steal the hell out of everything you like.” I went back and compared the lines in the two stories. Unrecognizable unless you knew the other author, the story, their love of Denis Johnson, and, even then, had heard the confession itself.
Stealing the hell out of other works has occurred throughout history. It goes back as far as Genesis and the story of the Flood, where non-Jewish cultures already had their own flood stories. The late literary theory wizard Umberto Eco believed that all works were birthed from other works: “The reader has to fill the blanks in the text and to relay it to the intertextuality from which [the text] is born and in which [the text] merges.” Texts are going to arise from other texts and then speak on behalf of or point to those other texts. Springsteen certainly helped point many unlikely readers toward Flannery O’Connor’s writing in his famous song Nebraska.
For this novel project I’ve cracked a small notebook and filled it’s pages with lines from novels and memoirs and essays I’ve been reading. Ritter claims to satiate the monster is crucial, “If you don’t give the monster what it wants, the damned S.O.B. will never give you anything in return. But if you do a good job feeding your monster, it’ll occasionally let you have a little inspiration.” And my notebook is annotated with sentences and words and phrases I hope to alter the time signature of and make dance to the tune of my own work.
But it’s a fine line to tread between plagiarism and creative license, isn’t it.
So am I stealing? Or simply bringing ideas up to the next floor?
More importantly: do I really have anything new to say?