Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Stealing From Yourself

When researching writer Raymond Chandler for a project that never happened, I came upon a lot of criticism of him and his writing.  One of the criticisms leveled at him from multiple sources was that he "stole from himself."  Now, even if you could steal from yourself, which seems impossible, I'm not even sure that it's worth mentioning.  However, what was being referred to was that he took earlier short stories, like the ones he had published in pulp fiction mags, and later re-worked them into novels.  This meant, to the critics, that he had run out of ideas, and that he was going back and stealing earlier ideas to create something to sell.

I'm quite the Chandler aficionado, and have been through all of his papers at the UCLA Archive and read lots of books and I have to say - I don't think that was what he was doing.

Chandler taught himself to write keystroke by painful keystroke.  He wrote at night, after a day in an office counting beans, and slowly but surely began getting published by the kinds of magazines that pay a penny a word.  It took him a long time to get from there to full time writer and he wasn't a young man when he began.  The writer who wrote "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" is not the writer who co-wrote the flawless screenplay for Double Indemnity.

Chandler was his own worst critic - he was well-educated, he lived in his head, in a bottle, and when he could, up a skirt (there's a theme emerging here if you add in Bukowski, Miller and some of the others), but he was not what you'd call a people person.  I believe writing was painstaking for him and creating stories meant teaching old muscles new tricks - his gift for analysis and criticism seem far more natural to him than those for spinning a good yarn.

My guess is that Chandler wanted another crack at what he thought were good plots or characters, now that he was a more assured writer.  Now that he had an expanded audience and an ability to tell stories on a grander scale, I think he wanted to stretch out certain concepts.  I think it's why he didn't mind having his writing adapted for the screen, yet mostly worked on other people's stories as a screenwriter.  He knew the material itself had multiple lives, and in reality, only lives in the mind of its audience  - the bigger the audience, the better.

There are a couple of lessons from this - one is go ahead and steal from yourself.  The other is don't try to run a marathon without training.

Chandler didn't start by writing novels.  He started small and worked up to a bigger canvas. He flexed his muscles for dialogue, character traits, settings, plot twists and then when he got good enough by his own reckoning, he tackled the 26.2 miles of a novel.

There's nothing wrong with this.  In fact, it's a good way to work.  Seeds of Woody Allen's biggest box office hit ever - Midnight in Paris - came from a short story he wrote decades before and the screenplay has scored multiple awards, including an Oscar.  (Also noteworthy - Mr. Allen made a time travel movie with NO visual effects.)

Chandler is expressly not guilty of what I see all the time in first spoken word pieces or first screenplays or novels - trying to tell the audience everything you know and everything you are about in one work.  You are limitless, your imagination is limitless and a work of art is held by time or space or both.  Let go of trying to cram it all in that first push -- you will get a much better story by focusing on that particular story.  You can have more novels like you can have more children - it takes work, dedication and commitment, but in the end you can have a whole shelf of books, instead of just one.  And they will be much better books.

That's my goal.

(There's another lesson in here - nothing is ever wasted.  My research on Chandler has left me in very good stead a number of times.)

(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

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