Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pieces of Ought

From time to time, we come across works to read or see or listen to that make us wish we'd been there, however small a fly on the wall, at creation. These works, out of the mainstream, inspire and force the green fuse through flower, as Dylan Thomas so aptly put it. To say it another way, these works make us envious of those who originated them, make us want to produce our own version as a tribute. This is, I recognize, reactive composition as opposed to originate composition, a distinction that is as grand as the separation between character-driven stories and those propelled by plot design. Thus I would call my piano concerto In the Manner of Ravel, as indeed he called a piece of his In the Manner of Borodin. I would call my opera The Gershwin Family as a nod to Porgy and Bess. My version of the first two and the last episode of The Wire would be subtitled: a tribute to Clark Johnson and David Simon, the respective actor/director and the writer. The motion picture that haunts my reverie and working writing process is The Late Show, a 1977 film written and directed by Robert Benton, featuring Art Carney as Ira Wells, a retired, sixty-ish private eye, and Lilly Tomlin as the highly distracted former hippie, Margo, who has come to Ira with a case involving the recovery of her missing cat. Ira goes to work and, shades of Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, discovers who killed his former partner.

I do not imagine for a moment that I could have produced anything close to the originals in quality and plangent emotional integrity. On the other hand, I believe it is a nice thing, a kind of iPod Genie-in-a-Bottle to have at hand, the business of being inspired by the works of others to trick out my own landscape, case it, rehearse it, costume it, and set it into action.

Introducing myself to a new class last night, I mounted my high horse to proclaim, Please do not write anything for this class that is not fun for you. I don't care if the intent is revenge or profit or revisionist history so long as the revenge amuses you, the profit is enough to buy a decent meal with a respectable bottle of pinot noir, and the history you revise wasn't very satisfying in the first place.

Nearly every book on the shelves of my main book case is a title I am in some way envious of, including the Big Little Books, and the reference books. Man needs all the inspiration he can get. These titles inspire even while they frustrate and send forth waves of awe.

As a species, we writers only produce the things we've written, not the things we ought to have written, but we are guided by that remarkable pole star of being directed by pointing the hour-hand of our watch to the sun when it is directly overhead, then setting our course on the minute hand, navigating with the most primitive of devices when all about us, other writers are using the sophisticated tools of their intuitions and imagination.

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