Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What I Learned From Meeting Brian Jacques

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to briefly meet Brian Jacques (June 1939 - February 2011), acclaimed author of the Redwall series.  I recall he was particularly fond of an illustration of my wife's which was on our business cards at the time.  While talking with him for a few minutes was great, what I really took away from the evening was his talk on writing for children.  One item that stuck with me concerned his response when he was asked about whether, or not, he read books similar to his own: the competition.  He replied that he avoided doing so.  It was his worry, he explained, that doing this might unconsciously influence his own characters and the originality of their adventures.  That was the degree to which he cared about safeguarding his own originality.

Granted, it may be much easier for an extraordinarily popular writer to avoid mixing with the competition than for the rest of us more average writers, but I think there’s a message here for all of us.  Of course, not everyone agrees with this view.  One literary agent I met in Seattle took the position that it’s a mistake if the writer fails to immerse himself in his own genre, and it is true that writers should to be able to intelligently compare their work to the competition.  Still, as I said, I think there’s more truth than error in Mr. Jacques’ position.

I irritate my family to no end at times, because of the ways I try to implement this wise advice.  If there’s a movie that comes too close to my writing for children, for instance, I’ll avoid going—unless seriously outvoted.  It seems to me that there’s a general apathy to originality in the creative marketplace of today.  Sometimes, we mistake originality with simply “being different,” but it’s more than that.  
One example, a personal pet peeve, that comes to mind is the tendency for more and more authors to try to re-write classic works with their own modern spin.  While I have seen this work artistically a few times (and commercially more times), it too often makes the reader only too aware of how much better the classic actually is.  This holds even more true when the author betrays ignorance concerning the original work. 
If we look at these re-writes, in particular, we’re likely to hear several explanations or excuses from their producers—it introduces younger readers to the classics, satisfies public appetite for this style of writing, or, hey!, there’s only so many plots from which to choose!  Broadly speaking, I think the first position is the most tenable, but none is convincing to me.  In my mind, it’s still a symptom of the larger disease of creative apathy.  If you’re a writer, do your job!  Create your own memorable characters, settings, and plots from scratch.  An example of a re-write work along these lines might be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Of course, this is just my personal opinion, and there are clear exceptions--for example, the great movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.  

To digress into a bit of a philosophical vein here, if creativity and originality are likened to a pool from which successive generations of artists, writers, and composers draw their inspirations, I’d have to say that the water has become somewhat shallow of late.  Mysterious places and phenomenon of our planet are regularly unmasked by science.  Each stone that is turned over in pursuit of science is one less stone under which the fairy may fly—to put it in romantic terms.  (I can imagine my late uncle Phil Rand cringing at this expression of sentimentality.)  It's not that I'm lamenting "progress" exactly, but I'm suggesting there's a downside, too.  The more we come to know, the less mystery or unknown there is in the air, and it's that sense of mystery and adventure which has inspired some of the West's greatest books.

I’d also take the position that unique experiences of individuals from which creative work is born or nurtured has been lessened to some degree by shared media, shared experiences.  Instead of experiencing our own adventures, we are content to watch and listen to those of strangers.  All of these things—from the felling of the forests to the flickering television in our living rooms—seem to have drained the pool of creativity bit by bit.  Of course, there’s always hope, because God is the greatest source of real inspiration.  In conclusion, I'd like to end with the words of my father-in-law, John Collier.  

Five hundred years ago if you wanted to hear the greatest words being spoken, see the greatest sculpture being carved, see the greatest painting and hear the best music, you went to church. 

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