I’ve taken heart recently, creatively speaking, from three books: Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Forever, and Keith Richards’ autobiography Life.
From Greenblatt’s very readable and fascinating biography of Shakespeare, just how much Shakespeare stole plots/basic ideas from other existing plays or stories. (I knew he had done so sometimes, but didn’t realize quite how much.) Creative lesson: you don’t, necessarily, have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to do your own thing with it (and, I mean, do it really well). Existing stories can be something entirely new. Take the myth of Orpheus a’la Rilke and way too many others to mention (sheesh I even have an Orpheus sonnet), or Daedalus/Icarus (Auden, Williams, Sexton, etc.) just to name the first two that came to mind.
Or, existing forms. I was so very delighted when I read Edward Hirsch’s sestina “At Kresge’s Diner in Stonefalls, Arkansas” last week, one I’d never seen anthologized before (I ran across it in Strong Measures, which I just picked up). The conversational diction and rhythms of the waitress speaker are SO well suited to the braiding repetition of the sestina, I can’t believe everyone isn’t writing a truck stop waitress sestina. (“I prefer the truck driver. // You can trust a truck driver” — “I’d rather go to bed with a pig, a northerner! // Well, maybe not a northerner.”)
From Alan Sepinwall’s book* about the recent era of great, great (and successful) television shows (The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Sopranos, etc. etc.), which is incidentally a solid balance of intelligent criticism and geeking-out fandom, the thread running through nearly all the stories about the creation/development of these acclaimed and/or blockbuster shows is that the creator assumed it would never get made (for whichever reason).
So they said the hell with it, since it’ll never get made, I’ll write exactly the kind of show I want. I’ll write what I want to see, and I don’t care about pleasing anyone but me and my friends. And since I know for sure it’ll never get greenlit, what hell let’s toss in [X or Y] just for fun. And that, much, much longer story and neglecting all mention of luck short, is how we got such huge successes as Lost, The Shield, 24, Buffy, Breaking Bad, and all the rest.
(By the way, if you read The Revolution was Televised, only read the chapters about shows you’ve already seen, or know you don’t want to see, as they presume a familiarity with the entire run, and are therefore spoiler-heavy.)
On a related note, somewhere else online this week (I forget where, sorry) I came across the old ‘write what you know’ adage flipped over to ‘don’t write what you know, write what you like.’ Write what you love to talk/think about, be around. Write what you’re obsessed about. (“Most young writers,” said Richard Hugo in Triggering Town, “haven’t learned to submit to their obsessions.”)
And Keith Richards? I’m halfway through his awesome — and I mean, it’s really awesome — memoir, and when the Stones are just starting to come together, Richards talks about them all living in this filthy apartment and mostly doing nothing but listening to music, playing music, figuring music out (with some breaks for stealing food and apparently doing disgusting things with snot — “flobber” is I guess the British term for that, as in, “[He] was a serious flobber.”). They were so obsessed with music they didn’t really even bother much with girls much! When the Stones were first becoming something, Richards says,
We didn’t think we were ever going to do anything much except turn other people on to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. We had no intention of being anything ourselves. The idea of making a record seemed totally out of the picture. Our job at that time was idealistic. We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues. It was terribly shining shields and everything like that. And monastic, intense study, for me at least. Everything from when you woke up to when you went to sleep was dedicated to learning, listening, and trying to find some money […] It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. […] You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.”
(He notes too that of course “You’ve got to go out there and get your heart broke and then come back and then you can sing the blues. Preferably several times. At that time, we were taking it on a purely musical level, forgetting that these guys were singing about shit.”)
During a conversation with a friend once about how much time a week I spend writing, he said something in response to my lament about how hard it is to come back right after work and put in another block of hours writing in the evenings or on the weekends, with “Well and you have to live your life too, right” and I couldn’t articulate it at the time why that wasn’t right. “Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.” (Which is a little bit of an exaggeration for me, but I suspect it shouldn’t be.)
Write what you love, use whatever you can, and spend most of your waking hours on it. Alright. Back to it.