Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Stealing Stories

It has been a month since the WIK 13 (Writing and Illustrating for Kids) conference in Birmingham at which keynote speaker, Matt de la Pena, made his call to “Plagiarize life!” For me, the idea that plagiarism can be a good thing echoes Picasso’s claim that “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

No one is suggesting that we break any copyright laws.  Lazily slapping your name on someone else’s work does not make it yours. I believe that the spirit of these two mandates to “plagiarize” and “steal” is more about internalizing ideas and making them your own. It is about noticing, applying, and transforming. There’s nothing lazy about it.

When non-writers briefly meet a girl at a party named Charlie, they think “cool name” before walking away and never giving it another thought. When writers meet Charlie, they think “cool name for a meat-and-potatoes girl with a gift for sarcasm. This will be the friend of my protagonist in my next young adult novel.” Never mind that “Miss Marple” and “Eleanor Rigby” are the names of real people. Agatha Christie and Paul McCartney own those names now.

Of course writers take more than names; they borrow, steal, and plagiarize personality traits, feelings, and experiences. They steal from their own life!

Having a place (be it a poem, journal entry, stand up comedy routine, or screen play) to channel your experiences is a gift. A writing-mindset can turn unpleasant and uncomfortable experiences into stories. It can turn a painfully inefficient carpool lane into productive work time. It can turn drama queens and energy leaches into interesting characters.

Say your boss chews you out you in front of your co-workers. You could be filled with humiliation and hate. You could climb under a rock. You could plan your vengeance. OR you can step outside yourself and notice his popping eyes, the harshness of each word’s consonant sounds, and the stabbing, accusing finger. You can empathize with people who deal with rage-filled control freaks. Now you are qualified to write a believable scene about a child being bullied by his teacher!  You can exercise poetic justice on the pages because writers get the last word.

Embarrassing situations are easier to laugh at when you get into research mode. When you are focused on documenting an experience, you aren’t focused on yourself; when you are experience-conscious, you are less self-conscious.

Tonight as I pulled a cookie sheet of taco shells out of the oven, the kitchen filled with smoke and a burned chemical smell. One bite was one bite too many. When I checked the date on the box I realized that they had expired two years ago. (Obviously we Applebees don’t eat hard-shelled tacos very often).

“Good news!” I said, “These aren’t poisoned, they are just really old. We can still trust the company.”

“We can trust the company but we can’t trust you,” one of my sons chided.

I immediately remembered the dinner scene where Ramona and Beezus Quimby realized that they were eating tongue and that they could no longer trust their parents. I had to wonder if Beverly Clearly had ever unknowingly been fed or if she had ever fed some unknowing child something suspicious like cow tongue or rancid tacos. Her Ramona stories always ring true to me.

It is good advice to write what you know. The bonus is that through writing, that you can know more, just as an artist learns about an object from drawing it. Ideas are infinite as long as we continue to observe, notice, transform, and learn from our lives.

 P.S. Conference highlights always include familiar faces. 
Here is Micheal Allen Austin and I acting blurry. Amazon named Micheal 's book 
“Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg” a Best Book of the Year (picture book category).

Lori Nichols received SCBWI Portfolio Showcase awards the last two years. 
Look for her book "Maple" coming soon.

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