The Writing Process: Theft (and Tom Chiarella)!

I was reading an article in Esquire this morning, “How to Be a Sweet-Talker” by Tom Chiarella. He’s a fine writer and I’ve read his work for several years. I came across this sentence:

I spent the great flood lying in front of my television like a bag of dirty clothes, listening to the rain, watching Runaway Train on DVD.

I was struck by that image — like a bag of dirty clothes. I was impressed, envious. That was good writing, a perfect image, you can see him there, lazing on the couch. And I thought: I might steal that line someday. No, not exactly, not word for word. I thought of Bystander (Feiwel and Friends, Fall, 2009), a manuscript that I had been discussing last night with my editor, Liz. There’s a scene where a boy is sprawled on his bed, deep in thought. But no, not there. Probably another time, another place, I don’t know when, or even if ever.

If I do end up borrowing that image, I’ll change it out of respect for Mr. Chiarella, and in the service of my character. For starters, I don’t think a kid would come up with that exact image. A pile of dirty clothes maybe? A pile of rags? A bag of bones? I don’t know. It’s entirely possible I won’t ever use it. It’s likely I’ll forget the exact words that Chiarella used. But I suspect the image will remain (especially now that I’ve written about it).

My main point is about reading. All writers admire things in books; we all learn our craft by reading (and, of course, by writing). While that’s true of everyone, there’s a distinction. As an author, someone who appreciates good writing, I read with active sympathy for the writer. I’m aware of the person behind the text, that somebody sat down and wrote this, selected those exact words. I don’t think all readers do that, especially young readers. The emphasis is more often on plot: what happens next, and then what, and then what. But I notice punctuation, the use of a semi-colon, the shape and rhythm of sentences. That’s how you learn. It’s also why I’m such a ridiculously slow reader.

And no, I don’t really think it’s stealing. We are all, as Sir Isaac Newton said, standing on the shoulders of giants and, yes, midgets. (We learn what NOT to do, too.) Everything I’ve ever read goes into the blender and informs the blank, glowing screen of my computer. But maybe what I learned most of all from Tom Chiarella, or re-learned, was to keep trying to make my images fresh, to stay away from sleepy cliches, to reach for something new. And, hey, if anyone wishes to steal a turn of phrase from me, please be my guest. I gladly grant permission. After all, as readers and writers and lovers of the language, we’re all in this together.

Endnote: In writing this, and poking around, I learned that Tom Chiarella has written a book called Writing Dialogue. I immediately ordered it. So at least he’ll get some royalties out of the deal!

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