Sunday, February 14, 2021

Role Model

 When you take on a literary role model, whether you realize it or not, you are attempting to add tools to your toolkit. The tools belong to your role model. In all likelihood you had no real awareness of such tools until you saw your role model using them in some easy way that made you think you could use them.

Because of your reeading habits as a boy, you were all over the place with writers you sought out. The fact of Albert Payson Terhune's long list of publications lead you to follow him. You were not looking for tools to borrow. True, he wrote about collies, a breed somewhere toward the middle of your okay list. The best you could offer of your interest at the time had to do with his clear understanding of how to deploy event and intent. These many years later, you remember his dog characters but cannot bring to memory any human. 

James Fenimore Cooper wrote about scouts and adventures, often impacted by Indians. Thus you worked your way through him and his shadowy people, all of whom, in mitigation, had names you could recall.

Helpful librarians suggested other authors such as Joseph Altschuller and Howard Pease. You still have a visual memory of the librarian who told you, yes, He'd be good for you. He wrote boys adventure books.

And there it was, your plight. You were a boy who read because he craved adventure, found non in the world about him, relied instead on that situation you now recognize as passive in its intrusiveness, not passive in its aggressiveness. You wanted story to fill the void. You wanted--ah, you could not describe what you wanted then. Your attempt to define it now may still want vital details. You wanted to eavesdrop on adventures others engaged.

Before long, you found on your own a writer who turned all that around, caused you to become aware of his incredible set of tools, caused you at one time in your life to apply as a correspondent to a newspaper he worked for, instilled in you the practice of copying out his sentences, looking for the products of the tools. Once, when you were in the midst of a class called wood shop, you became aware of the fact of wood having grain, of the rip and cross-cut saw to negotiate the grains of any given piece of wood. You began to pay attention to the merest scrap of wood that came your way, the better to detect its grain. You learned how to identify the blades of the hand saw in order to detect whether it ripped, or cut with the grain, or crossed against the grain.

You believe you've read most of the enormous output of this writer, knowing your opinion of his least effective work. You arrived at grudging agreement with another writer who wrote of how must American fiction begins with another of this writer's work. You had some moments of wishing to borrow tools from this second author, but your admiration and fandom had distinct boundaries.

Last year, you took the unthinkable step. You borrowed a number of this author's characters, mixing them freely with your own characters, your own narrative voice, your own vision, after all these years, of where you believe the writer should be in relation to story and character. Each time you read through work already set down, your first thought relative to the correctness of narrative tone and, in fact, each word, has to do with how much the text sounds like you rather than the resonant, anchored, purposeful sound of The Role Model.

The early years of your discovery of Mark Twain were magical. He had no choice in the matter. You wished to see as he saw, feel as he felt, write as he wrote. You wished to write like him. These later years, since your work began to find minor places of publication, you understood why he has been such a beacon for you. Perhaps if he were able to see some of your prose, read one of your more recent short stories, have a look at the opening pages of this latest venture in which a character of your own creation is hired by a principal character of his, Tom Sawyer, to find another and yet more enduring of Twain's characters, Huckleberry Finn.  Mr. Twain might allow you were no slouch of a storyteller. With a twitch of his mustache, he could suggest with some sly innuendo that you might have put your time to better use, learned some trade where you had a chance at making a go of a career.

You can live with both possibilities. You would rather be no slouch than a wastrel of your apprentice time.  As you race through the decades of your life, you think sometimes of the things you have produced, the things you have not produced, and the fact that you have kept faith with teacher by taking care of the tools you have borrowed from him, admired them, used them to attempt projects well beyond your ability to produce.

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