Another Word: Debts
There are only a few books that I reread. Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit, some of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Camus’ The Plague, and a few others. They’ve become like having coffee with an old friend or watching Casablanca again; a place of comfort and familiarity. A way to reconnect with part of my past. And sometimes—more often than I expect really—a place to discover something new about how I read and how I write.
A few weeks ago, I started in on Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series for what I think will be the fourth time. It’s my bedtime reading, so I only do a few pages a day and a chapter at most. I’ve just gotten to the three-quarter mark on The Spring of the Ram, second book of eight, and what I’m discovering this time through is how much of it stuck with me the last times I read it, and how much of an effect it’s had on me.
There are some ways I knew that Dunnett had become one of my influences. She writes about economics and trade in the 1400s, and was passionate enough about it that I read a few books about medieval and renaissance banking, which served as one of the basic conceits in my Dagger and Coin books. But there are other things all through it that I didn’t know I was using, adopting, changing. In the first part of Spring of the Ram, for instance, there is a brief incident in which the company doctor receives a rare book about optics and the structure of the eye. In my novel, The Price of Spring, a physician studies a rare book on optics and the structure of the eye as one of the critical moments in the plot. I didn’t remember the Dunnett scene when I plotted out the novel, and the function of the two physicians and their books in the stories is utterly different. But it was a detail of such weird specificity, it reminded me of the debt I owe to those books.
The flow of ideas and techniques in fiction—or painting, or dance, or any art really—is fraught and contentious. Mostly that’s because of the (very legitimate) specter of plagiarism. There are a lot of examples of people taking other people’s complete works, filing off the serial numbers and claiming to have come up with them on their own. Shia LaBeouf lifting dialog, story, and structure from Daniel Clowes and then “apologizing” with unattributed quotations from other apologies by other people. Rand Paul lifting passages from Wikipedia and movies. The poet Christian Ward making only minor changes the works of at least half a dozen other poets and passing the poems off as his own. The appropriations and dishonesty of people like that does a disservice to more than the writers whose works they stole. It also puts a stigma on the conversation about the ways in which artists and writers legitimately borrow and reinterpret and take inspiration from each other.
Austin Kleon’s brilliant little book Steal Like an Artist is about, among other things, the division between plagiarism and inspiration, between studying other artists to do your own work and making a claim on the work that they’ve done. Kameron Hurley’s recent essay about her own debt to the traditions of violent, hypermasculine protagonists as a basic building block in her own work and the transformations that came from that choice is an example. Hurley is very aware of what she’s borrowed, how she’s used it, and how those changes made something genuinely and profoundly original.
And that, of course, is the trick.
Anyone who becomes an artist—writer, painter, dancer—had a first experience of their art as it was done by someone else. We’ve built up a lifetime of experience not only as performers but first as audience. We’ve learned from Ursula Le Guin what a good sentence looks like, and from Hemingway that there’s more than one kind of good sentence. We’ve learned from Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler how to turn a phrase. The exercises new authors do in order to learn—retype a page of your favorite author’s work, start with a paragraph from a published book and then write your own continuation, create a passage in the voice of an author you admire—are ways to internalize the choices and insights of the people who came before us. That’s what the process is.
We build a library of experience from it. The toolbox we work with is made up from bits and pieces of other writers, other stories. We make the world by experience and mimicry, by faking it until we find ourselves growing into our own idiosyncratic styles. The toolbox we have can only be made from the experiences we put into it, and for writers, many of those experiences are the ones we had reading other people’s books. What I have in the back of my mind depends on what I put in there. My sense of what the fourth act of a play does comes from studying Shakespeare and reading Robertson Davies. My distaste for explicit violence grows from (or at least through) my failure to enjoy Thomas Harris. The idea of the magical being Clarity-of-Sight, also called Blindness that figured so much in my book had its seeds in Tobias Beventini’s awe at being given a book on optics by Dorothy Dunnett. What comes out of us draws on what we’ve put into ourselves. Where else could it come from?
And that’s just true of writers and artists. That’s everyone.
Which is how I came to think about a different kind of debt.
My daughter is in grade school now, and part of what I see, watching her grow up, is how much she relies on what she’s heard and seen. I hear her use phrases the way I do, or my wife does. I see how her school’s policies on discipline come back out from her. She’s just like me this way, creating herself out of bits and pieces of what’s around her. And some of the people she’s learning from, who she’s basing herself on, are fictional. She has opinions about Aang and Katara from the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” TV series on Nickelodeon. We also had a long conversation not long ago about why Betty and Veronica need to stop treating Archie like a prize to be fought over. She cares deeply what happens to September during her journeys in Fairyland and dressed as the Marquess for Halloween.
I’ve never been in favor of censorship for kids. The rule in my house is that she can read anything she wants, so long as she’s willing to talk about it afterward. My stance on movies is tougher, but her tastes are tamer even than mine for her so it doesn’t really come up. But as a writer—as one of the folks who’s putting things out there for other people to fold into the back of their minds—this all has given me pause.
A debt means something is owed, and I am coming to suspect that I may owe something to whoever gives me their time and attention. The stories I tell, even if they’re consciously forgotten, are in their heads now. The scenes and people and actions I ask them to imagine are part of their experience. For me, a book on optics can rise to the surface with its origins unrecognized. For my daughter, a turn of phrase can come out of her mouth without her being at all aware that she’s quoting her mother or her teacher or me. That’s what it is to be a pattern-matching device fitted with will and desire. That’s what it is to be human.
I spend my life trying to put things into people’s minds, trying to give them bits of information and experience that mean enough to them that they remember my stories. Maybe even, without knowing, incorporate them into their own. There are consequences to that, even if I never see them.
I’m still struggling with the nature of the debt that fact incurs. Should I only ever be upbeat and positive? Should I never show someone being mean or glib or dismissive? Should I censor what I do so that what I leave with my readers has a better chance of helping them find a gentle phrase when the hard times come? I can’t quite believe that. My ambivalence about fiction as an engine of morality is already on record, but at the very least, we owe the people we write for, the people who see our paintings or attend our dances or who we raise into adults, the effort of remembering that we’re all made from pieces of other people. What we put out there is going to come back.
And probably not in the way we predict.