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Why I Steal

Jesse Kornbluth's first column on books that will make you a better writer

By Jesse Kornbluth - March 7, 2005
books.jpgWhen I was a kid, I lived in a North Carolina town where the temperature and humidity merged in June and remained in the 90s all summer. But the library was air-conditioned. And the library offered a way for a kid to structure his days: read a book, write a paragraph about it, get a strip of shiny red tape and paste that tape—as a "brick"—on a drawing of the library. Twenty bricks, and you "built" a library, and you got your name in the paper.

Summer after summer, I built two or three libraries.

Two decades later, 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.

Last year I launched HeadButler.com, a cultural concierge service. Its main purpose is to cut through all the hype about newly released books, movies and music—most of them dreadful—to focus on the good stuff, regardless of its release date. Consumers agree; 90 percent of what's sold every day on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble is the backlist. There's a reason: "Classics" are best-sellers that have hung around. They're not just more esteemed by snootball critics in esoteric journals—they're actually more fun to read.

My secondary purpose in launching HeadButler.com was to inspire and guide people who want to write. I miss teaching. I'm short on opportunities to turn students and fledgling writers on to the books that can open mental doors for them now and career doors for them later. HeadButler.com gives me a way to teach writing the same way I learned it—by encouraging reading.

I haven't pushed "how to" books. I don't believe in them. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is an exception, but then, Anne Lamott is an exception. Mostly, I push books that are organized, narrative, and high-energy, books that teach by example. And I prefer shorter books; they require more discipline from the writer. So what do I recommend for writers who want to better themselves? A little-known Ernest Hemingway novel, The Garden of Eden. It's unfinished and flawed, but see if this doesn't wake you up:

"They were hungry for lunch and the bottle of white wine was cold and they drank it as they ate the celery remoulade and the small radishes and the home pickled mushrooms from the big glass jar. The bass was grilled and the grill marks showed on the silver skin and the butter melted on the hot plate. There was sliced lemon to press on the bass and fresh bread from the bakery and the wine cooled their tongues of the heat of the fried potatoes...."

Writers of fiction and nonfiction alike could benefit from The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's masterpiece about Vietnam. The Queen's Gambit is pure story, it doesn't seem "well-written," but just try and put it down. Poets like Rumi and Raymond Carver—who lived 800 years apart—show you how to sharpen your ideas so you can state them in one illuminating sentence. Twyla Tharp's Creative Habit will help you develop some work habits. And if all else fails, read Bel-Ami, de Maupassant's masterpiece, which follows the ever-ascending career of a journalist who can't write to save his life but is magnificent at seducing the wives of his employers.

Why do you need to read widely in order to write better? After all, you have something to say and it's like nothing anyone's ever said before. But if you have any perspective at all, you know it's all been said before and you are a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants and the best way to make yourself worthy is to quote your betters and, when push comes to shove, appropriate their work.

By "appropriation," I don't mean plagiarism. I'm no fan of those famous writers who keep making the news: the ones who write prize-winning books in which—and it's always a mystery to them—another writer's sentences end up, word for word, in the book. I'm talking about style, about the sudden burst of dazzle that makes a reader feel you're not just committing journalism, you're actually writing.

For instance: Back in my New York magazine days, I wrote a profile of the late Glenn Bernbaum and Mortimers, the restaurant he owned. Mortimers was the ultimate malt shop for the social set in the ain't-we-rich '80s—so snooty it was more like a club than a business open to the public. And the time to be seen there was Sunday lunch.

When I described the scene at 1 p.m. on a typical Sunday, I wrote about Jerry Zipkin, Nancy Reagan's best friend, entering with two women from the Goulandris clan—"with a Goulandris on every arm," I wrote. The imagination-challenged copy editor circled the passage. "Every arm?" she queried. "He only has two." Yes he did, but as astute readers have already guessed, I got the idea for that phrase from a 1968 Bob Dylan song: "John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor/He traveled with a gun in every hand." (I have just read Luc Sante's review of Dylan's memoirs and am delighted to learn that Dylan "lifted those five words from Woody Guthrie's 'Ludlow Massacre,' in which the striking miners' women sell their potatoes and with the proceeds 'put a gun in every hand.'" From Woody to Bob to Jesse—I hope someone who reads this will remember the phrase and keep the chain going.)

Sometimes what you're taking is rhythm and style. Just as often you're recycling obscure quotations. Isaac Babel: "No iron can strike the heart with as much force as a period in exactly the right place." True. And just as true if you substitute "quotation" for "period."

Everyone quotes Samuel Johnson on second marriages—"the triumph of hope over experience"—but I think I'm the only writer serving up Johnson's "No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures." Warren Bennis, the leadership and business guru, once told me: "In moments of crisis, style dissolves into character." As soon as he said those words, I knew readers would see them again and again. And Emerson! On the environment, politics, business, this line has done me much good: "Nature hates monopolies and exceptions." Or Raymond Chandler: "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts." Or Roger Clemens, explaining why he had not intentionally thrown at a batter's head: "If I had meant it, he would know it." Pithy quotes, all. And as necessary to good writing as Splenda is to a latte.

Decades ago, when I was a literary tot and Tom Wolfe was heralded as one of the founders of "New Journalism," I wondered about his telegraphic style—reading Wolfe, I kept thinking of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), author of Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night. So I asked Wolfe if he'd ever read Céline. He hadn't. I asked about other writers. The same. I could have asked about writers all night, and I think Wolfe would have had the same answer every time.

Why did Wolfe let me believe that he hadn't read much of anything? For the Fight Club reason. I was asking about that which we do not speak. He was right, I was wrong: The magician had—correctly—declined to tell me where he got his tricks.

I'm probably saying too much about the source of mine. But not to worry. Things have changed since my long-ago conversation with Tom Wolfe. Too many writers—like my students at Tisch—would rather write than read. And it shows.

Jesse Kornbluth is the editor of HeadButler.com.



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