I used to think that my ideal job was to write. To make up stories. To lie for a living. Now that I’m in it, though, now that I’m comfortable in my novelist skin, it doesn’t feel that way at all. I observe for a living. I steal for a living. I stylize for a living. I find things in the real world, I take them for my own, and then I hammer them into a story-shaped thing. Writer? I am a thief and an artist.
One of my loves is mythology and folklore, and one
of the earliest folkloric traditions I got into was Celtic fairy lore.
Probably I can blame my mother for this. We were Navy brats and moved
about all over, and one of the ways she would distract us children on
long coast-to-coast moving trips was pointing out the window and saying
LOOK! THERE! DID YOU SEE THAT FAIRY? BEHIND THAT TREE? The reasonable
response would have been: No, mother, we did not, because we are
traveling at 65 miles per hour and that tree is a thing of our
now-distant past. But my mother was very persuasive, so instead, we
always craned our necks and tried to see the fairies in between the
trees or dancing on the lakes or hiding in the fog in the hills,
Anyway, one of the traditions around fairies
is that they live in grand underground worlds, ruled over by the
powerful fairy queen. Stories talk about how humans descend to this
underground world and are dazzled by the beauty and wonder they see. The
most beautiful citizens, the most intricate of architecture, the most
delicious of fruits hanging from enchanted trees. But they also talk
about how the longer you are underground — the more canny you are — the
more you begin to recognize your surroundings. Because the fairy queen,
for all her power, can’t create anything from scratch. She can only
observe beauty and wonder in the real world, then take it for herself
and assemble it in different ways. She is a thief. An artistic thief,
but a thief nonetheless.
Increasingly, I’ve realized that I
am very rarely creating something entirely from scratch. Instead, I am a
thief as well, stealing from everything I see, everything I do,
everyone I meet. And then I’m an artist — choosing carefully how to
stitch them back together.
For instance, I shall set the scene. A
few years ago, I began bringing a sketchbook with me as I toured. I
wanted to get better at sketching people in real time, and the only way
to get better in just about anything is practice.
annoying thing about people who are alive, though, something you, too,
may have noticed: they move. They move even more if they get wise to the
notion that you’re sketching them. So by this point, I had begun to
choose my victims rather carefully. People reading books. People staring
at signs. People dozing on their hands. People studying their lunches
with distrust. In this case, I was on an airplane, traveling from a tour
stop to a tour stop. Normally I didn’t sketch on planes, because all
you can see are the backs of people’s heads, or your seatmate, who can
definitely spot that you’re sketching them, and will definitely move
around, even if he or she is distrustful of his or her lunch.
normally I write on airplanes. I very much enjoy writing on planes, but
only as long as I am in the window seat with only one flank to protect.
This is because of a flight when I was trapped in a middle seat and
after I wrote a joke into my novel, the man beside me laughed. I asked
him: why did you DO that? And he said SORRY, it was funny. And I told
him: YOU HAVE RUINED MY LIFE. From then on, I only wrote in window
On this particular day, I was in an aisle seat, so there
would be no writing. The seat in the middle was empty. In my coveted
window seat was a young man whom I hated for being in the coveted window
seat. Once I got over my resentment that he had stolen my throne,
however, I realized that he was an ideal victim for sketching, as he was
sitting with his ball cap pulled over his face. He was so still
that it was possible he was dead. PERFECT. Dead people rarely move! I
would check him for a pulse after I was done.
So I sketched him
with delight, and then, a half hour later, I heard a voice. “Is that
me?” He had this real soft Southern accent — the sort I’d grown up with
back in the Shenandoah Valley — and it was audible because he’d removed
his hat from his face and because he was alive. I showed him the
drawing. He was pleased. I told him that I couldn’t write because I
wasn’t in the window seat, and it was a long plane ride, so he might as
well tell me his life story. It wasn’t long enough for his entire life
story, but he did tell me how his hand. I had noticed it while I was
sketching: it was oddly shaped, and I’d drawn it oddly shaped. When he
noticed that I noticed, he told me the tale of how he’d broken it. It
turned out that, although he assured me he was a peaceful creature, he’d
broken it on someone’s face. He’d been in a minor altercation defending
his sister’s honor. As he was telling me this story — which may or may
not have been true — I was listening to him with my mind on record. I
was getting ready to steal him.
I used to steal the surface of a
thing. I would have stolen that story of the barfight, for instance, and
all the details around it, wholecloth. I would have recorded it as
truthfully as I could imagine and I would’ve been proud of myself for
accurately transcribing the human experience. But that’s bad thievery.
Shallow thievery. Copying, not artistry.
Now I know that when I’m
stealing someone, it’s not their details I need. It’s their soul. I’ve
learned to solve for x. To simplify to the essence. It’s not about the
punch. It’s about why he threw that punch. No, it’s about why he threw that punch then and never any other time. It’s about how
he’s telling me the story. How he includes his sister’s honor in this
story of a single, crippling punch, because her honor adds a weight that
the mere velocity of the swing does not. He can’t own that punch — that
single punch — even to me, a stranger on a plane, without including the
backstory of its purpose. It’s about how he wants me to know that he’s
not bragging about a casual barroom brawl, this hand — this broken hand —
he broke his hand for a reason.
Here’s the thing: he could’ve
been lying to me. His story could be completely fabricated, and then, if
I stole that story, I’d be telling a lie of a lie. A copy of a copy,
each version a bit less like reality. That would be bad stealing on my
But here is solving for x, simplifying for the truth,
stealing the essence. Here was the truth, sitting beside me, a
confession in the knit of his eyebrows and that soft Southern accent.
Here was a boy who had lost his temper once, much to his shame, and here
was a boy who had had to look at that moment every day since
it had happened. Everything else was details. Just noise. But THAT was
the soul: and that’s what I stole.
That boy became Adam Parrish from the Raven Cycle.
A boy who made a mistake and has to live with it every day. A boy who carries physical evidence of a moment’s anger.
Writer? I am a thief and an artist.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Artist & Thief (an excerpt from my SCBWI keynote for those who weren't there)
how I write|the raven cycle|