Wednesday, January 27, 2016



Sometimes when you’re reading a creative writer, just a few words set off the sparks in your mind. Here’s an example. Lately I’ve been reading Nabokov’s Letters to Vera (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), which, like everything Nabokov has written, is full of sparkling passages. At one point he mentions Joyce and Proust:

“Joyce met Proust just once, by chance; Proust and he happened to be in the same taxi-cab, the window of which the first would close and the second would open—they almost quarreled. On the whole it was rather tedious” (267). On this same page Nabokov gets into some fascinating macaronic word play, taking off on Joyce.

Here is my embellishment of that passage, which I recently inserted into a long novel I am preparing for publication:

“Joyce and Proust ended up by chance in the same taxi-cab one day. They had never met before. Joyce would open the window, Proust would ask him to close it. Drafts. This opening and closing and opening again and closing again went on for the whole of their life together (ten minutes). Then they climbed out of the taxi, thoroughly disillusioned with each other—and went their separate ways for all time.”

Is this plagiarism? No, this is creative borrowing plus embellishing. A pedantic reader might also object: but are you sure you have the facts right? Is this what actually happened? Aren’t you, to some extent, making up this scene between two great writers?

Yes, I am making up the scene, embellishing upon two great writers. But I’m not writing a scholarly work. I write fiction. I can make up Joyce and Proust if I like in my fiction. I can even make up Nabokov. I’ve already made him up once, in my short story called “Hobnob.” It’s a wonderful life, being a fabricator! "Эх ты, ужасный выдумщик!"

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


A story by Hillary Mantel, “The Present Tense,” London Review of Books, Jan. 7, 2016
In what is otherwise a realistic story, about teaching in a third-world country, the teacher injects a bit of fantasy in making up a tale to tell her students. About a man whose head got turned around backwards. The fantasy infects the reader, grows inside him, so that we end up with something like this, part Hillary and part Hillary+reader:

“A man went off to work one day and came home to his wife with his head turned backwards on his shoulders.  His bare feet were as long as his calves, his toes were fat, arthritically so, and he wriggled his fat arthritic toes as he walked, grinning from ear to ear out of his bassackwards-fitting head, exposing blockish teeth like gravestones.”

This is writing with verve. Don’t you think so? Doesn’t it beat the run-of-the-mill thing about middle class Americans and their tribulations, told in a style that is dull and pedestrian? You can find the original Mantel story online if you wish, and you can compare what she wrote to the embellished paragraph above.

But the point I make here concerns, precisely, the embellishments. You read something that has a certain creative frisson. Then that spark ignites something inside you, and you become creative, creating new flame out of someone else’s creative spark. So goes the creative process down through the ages: art inspiring new art that inspires new art, ad infinitum. Thanks, Hillary.