Have I heard that somewhere before?

Where do a writer’s words come from? From within them of course – but from the outside world too.

I swear I don’t do it on purpose – but I am as guilty as any writer of the occasional bit of word theft. I consciously try not to do it – and I would never nick a whole paragraph or anything as outrageous as that.

But there are times, when I look back over what I have written that perhaps the odd phrase here or there rings a distant bell – and I realise that’s because, one way or another – I have lifted it from something else I read or heard or saw years before.

Magpie_robinLook – I’d say it was inevitable really – because I don’t just adapt from art – I adapt from life – someone might say something to me in passing in the pub and ten years later those same words are coming out of the mouth of a fictional character on one of my pages.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the writer’s magpie mind picks up shiny things from other works of art and resets them later in their own work.

arden-king-lear-old-editionWant to see an example of it happening? Just look at any of the annotated student versions of Shakespeare’s plays – an Arden edition for example (do they still do those?) You get a third of each page of play – then two-thirds of notes telling you where each line, each phrase, each word, was used before or since.

So here’s the first paragraph from one of my short stories called The Runner – it was, and is, an important story for me first because it’s a good one and second because it won an award called the Bridport Prize which is quite a big competition in the UK.

One morning I remember I woke up and one of us was crying. And for a baffled, anxious moment I couldn’t work out whether it was me or my soon to be ex-wife.
Hollow, vacant sobs, lost under the duvet. It was me, but it could have been either, could have been both, united in the terrible grief of division.

I mean – that’s me, I wrote that. But there are echoes here and there

409px-ElvisCostello1979Here’s Elvis Costello – the only Elvis who really mattered for men and women of my generation. A sound bite of lyrics from his late period masterpiece ‘I Want You’. See the phrase in there which looks familiar?

Your fingernails go dragging down the wall
Be careful darling you might fall
I want you
I woke up and one of us was crying
I want you
You said “Young man I do believe you’re dying”
I want you

But there’s more – another source I think. Look at the opening paragraphs from Martin Amis’s The Information:

InformationCities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that … Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, ‘what is it?’ and the men say, ‘Nothing. No it isn’t anything really. Just sad dreams.’

If I were to go through any of my work with a fine tooth comb I would find examples like that dotted through it I think. Some kind and careful readers have found examples for me in Song of the Sea God. Either on a macro level where they point out other books or movies which it resembles in terms of theme or on a micro level where they recognise a form of words, a turn of phrase.

None of us works in a vacuum I suppose is the message.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Emotional wrestling match

Back in the day, when the world and I were young, there was only one Elvis my generation cared about and who could gain the unanimous approval of the student union bar. Elvis Costello, singer songwriter nonpareil. And Elvis once said, if memory serves, that the only true emotions he ever really felt were bitterness and jealousy.

I like to think I have a slightly broader emotional palate than that, though I do see where he was coming from – I would say that the emotional range he described was that of a very young person. I remember the days when I used to get jealous when other writers achieved success and bitter if I was rejected by an agent or publisher, or if a story I’d written failed to win a competition.

These days I waver between being pleased or indifferent when other authors taste success and as for bitterness – well, I’ve accumulated that many rejection slips over the years I could paper my house with them and make a start on your lounge – they just don’t sting any more. I’ve learned just to count the successes, and ignore the failures. And thankfully there have been some successes.

These days I’d say a big pair of emotions for me are guilt and laziness. Is laziness an emotion? Well I certainly feel lazy a lot of the time so I’m saying it is.

The way this pair work is like a tag wrestling team. The other day I was planning to go out running for example, but it was bitterly cold out and frankly I couldn’t be bothered. Yet I knew I should and had promised myself I would. So there we had guilt in the blue corner and laziness in the red corner, seconds out, round one.

In the end I went for the run. When I got back I couldn’t feel my face for a whole hour. It was still there though, I checked in the mirror.

The whole business of writing for me is balanced between guilt and laziness. I am not currently writing fiction. I promised myself a break when Song of the Sea God was published. But that was four months ago now and I should really start again. I should, but I am too lazy. Yet not writing is making me feel guilty. The guilt will slowly build – do gym work, take steroids, until it is strong enough to get in the ring for the final showdown with laziness and whup, as the Americans would say, its butt.

At that point I will get back to it – until then idleness reigns.

What’s your motivation for writing?

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.