Thursday, April 05, 2007

'Teef from Teef make God Smile'


The title to this installment is a Bahamian proverb referring to the Almighty's derision when theft is perpetrated upon a thief ('teef'). "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, He shall have them in derision" (Psalm 2 v.4, KJV).

The philologists among you may note that we thus make the word 'Teef' do double duty both as verb and noun; a common practice here in The Islands, where speech tends towards ellipsis in most aspects. In fact, all you really need is the present tense; but that's another post, and I digress.

All writers are thieves by nature. We are liars too, but I leave that to yet another post, advance work for which can be found here. We steal scenes from overheard conversations, we gather characters from acquaintances, from dreams we purloin eldritch horrors, and we lift ideas from chance questions.

Or from other writers.

Now in other Arts, this propensity to borrow without asking is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I play the Blues, a musical form that thrives on stolen chops and covers of the Classical Masters (Robert Johnson, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, etc., etc., There was a time in Eric Clapton's life when he wouldn't waste his time with you if you didn't know - and appreciate - Robert Johnson). It is expected that you should be able to play the old standards. The same is true of concert pianists and violinists and cellists, or of opera singers: performance of DWG material is mandatory. Of course the required cover list changes for, say, American Idolaters, but the principle remains the same.

Mind you, while stealing is encouraged, the unwritten rule is: if you steal a lick or riff, you must 'make it yours', i.e. alter it slightly. This gives sufficient homage to the artist from whom you ripped it, while giving listeners the impression that you have a modicum of talent in your own right.

It is a little different for writers, in that we cannot reproduce a given work by a Classy Writer (like Isaac Asimov, or J.R.R. Tolkien). That is plagiarism, which means writers haven't worked out a royalty system that everyone can live with, unlike songwriters, who, quite reasonably, don't mind you reciting or covering their work, once they can get paid for your performance. (On the other hand, if readers ever become able to download novels over Kazaa or Limewire, writers will starve, since, unlike famous musicians, most writers don't make more money than a given Wal-Mart location).

How then, do writers appropriate foodstuffs suitable for Muse provender? I've already posted about the use of observation and imagination, neither of which involves outright theft. They're just creative journalism, where the writer simply reports what he has 'seen'...nothing terrible ever happens to a writer, only wonderful anecdotes. Everything that happens to us is grist for the mill.

But when we choose to add grist that suits our taste, writers imbibe other writers' works, we absorb, masticate, ruminate, digest, ferment, store and then regurgitate. While many of us schedule time to write, how many of us schedule time to read? Different types of reading strengthen different authorial muscles or abilities.

Reading poetry (which should be done every day, according to Bradbury) stimulates the senses and energizes the simile photons so that we can explode metaphorical clusterbomblets on the page in fragrant thunder.

Short stories, comic books, and cartoons develop crystallization of characters and distillation of plot.

Novels build structural stability, elegance, and style, multiply texture, widen and deepen scope, and teach us the intelligent organization and recombination of the primal elements that meet the rapacious hunger of the human heart for Story.

Articles, blogs, and essays, both for the serendipitous resonance of seemingly useless trivia (the judicious use of which may be used to manipulate the reader into suspending disbelief) and for that one improbable, irresistible sensory detail that places the reader there.

So we all steal from each other. I stole the main ideas for this post from Ray Bradbury, John Gardner, and Tom Morrisey.

What will you steal today?