Monday, October 13, 2008

My Unwritten Books

One reason I've never written any of my books, leaving them all unwritten is that I have a fear of plagiarism. Will I unwittingly think some sentence or phrase or idea is my own and fail to faithfully attribute it?

Of course, My Unwritten Books is a book by George Steiner so the title of this entry is itself a plagiarism. [How many people, do you think, can spell plagiarism without looking it up? Digression. That's another enemy of my book writing.]

I'm itching to buy Mr. Steiner's book from Amazon. So it could join all the other unread books around here.

Mr. Steiner is a polyglot and polymath, according to Wikipedia. That assertion makes me envious and makes me feel small as the speaker of 1.1 languages (I speak enough French to qualify as a backward toddler) and the master of virtually no field of endeavor.

I was moved to write about what I have not written by a couple of clippings I found in a box of photos that I was sorting. One, from a 2002 New York Times OP-ED page was by Joseph Epstein. Entitled "Think you have a book in you? Think Again" he argues to not, as he puts it "add to the schlock pile." (It should be noted that Mr. Epstein has himself contributed several books to the publishing stream. I have actually read one of them and I think it is somewhere in this condo.)

The other article, from the Book Review in that same paper from the very next day's issue, was a celebration by Bruce McCall of his brother-in-law, John Jerome, who wrote books that never brought him fame, but who celebrated and loved the writing itself. The non-fiction books, their titles at least, speak of mastery and research and care for details. (I haven't read any of them, but On Turing Sixty-Five sounds tempting since I'm now old enough to realize that I'll reach that age without writing a book!)

But, what have I failed to write?
  • A novel (or a is such a nascent work it really doesn't matter) about a woman and the effect when this woman dies in a plane crash leaving behind a husband, elderly parents and in-laws and a trusted assistant, all dependent on her for one thing or another. She is a bit autobiographical but neatly avoids most or maybe all of my own failings. Called 'Hole in the Water' the novel refers to the site of the crash (the ocean) and to the woman's absence from a water aerobics class. The entire book (or screenplay) may or may not be set after the event. Or maybe it's a flashback.
  • A novel called Pogonip. The eponymous title character has a surname that is actually an obscure word meaning ice fog. He has run from tragedy into wealth until he can maintain multiple homes around the world and spend lots of money sending friends on elaborate 'games' using the map of the earth as the playing board. He doesn't really engage thoroughly with people in person, but his arm's length approach to life is interrupted when several players go to Berlin instead of Paris in the midst of one of the games he has financed and invented and are the unwitting victims of a terrorist bombing. This piece has been hanging over my head, necessitating a trip to Berlin to see in person something that was constructed since I was last there. It has its roots in intentional encounters with friends in faraway places.
  • A short story which grew into a novel because, you know, if you don't actually write something it keeps growing. It explores the nature of truth beginning with the chance witnessing of a hit and run accident by someone who is somewhere they are not, technically, supposed to be. A serious crime witnessed by someone committing a misdemeanor. This one didn't have a name, I didn't think. It was originally in a collection of unwritten short stories that included one about a stone wall, I knew that. I thought that they were mostly in my head, titles and ideas included. I've considered combining this one with the one above in a giant novel for the purposes of not writing. At some point, the protagonist and the victim of the hit and run were revealed to me as being natives of Odessa. Odessa, Texas that is. And I needed to take a trip there to lend authenticity to a couple of ideas. [It turns out that I'd actually saved a document containing proposed titles and blurbs about the stories in that original, unwritten collection. When I found it on my computer just now, I only vaguely remembered the other story ideas besides the two mentioned. The title of this one that has grown out of control in my head was to be "Behind the Screen." There was another story in there called "Avalanche" based on something that happened to me as a kid. Another called "No Load-Bearing Walls" was vaguely familiar. Another entitled "The Next Apartment" had this blurb: "On relationships and envy of same." Although one (you or I) can imagine the story, I remember not one thing about its potential structure.]
  • A screenplay that is technically not mine but a friend's (I was just helping or hindering or encouraging with some tasks like organizing a time line and dialog bits). She doesn't want the plot revealed so enough said about that. I think the material is on a WEB page with a logon and password I've forgotten. As you see above, I'm not so squeamish about telling what I remember of unwritten plots and would say even more about the ones above but you would only laugh. Laugh more than you are already laughing. And I would be making stuff up on the fly that I don't really remember committing to in the ephemeral plot in my imagination.
  • A self-help book about packing, traveling and divesting oneself of unnecessary things. Seriously, I thought I could help others in this regard. Ha.
There must be others. Can this really be a life's collection of unwritten works!? How sad there can't be more when actually writing them, let alone getting them published, isn't required. However, my restraint, it turns out, is admirable. Joseph Epstein says in the above-mentioned article:
Misjudging one's ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time-consuming mistake. Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don't write that book, my advice is, don't even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.
Good advice, I think. I think I'll let my self-help advice be just that and let my characters continue to grow and mature and change inside my head. It'll save me a trip to Berlin not to mention Odessa.

[Today's photo was taken on W. Sixth using a gift shop there as a lens. One wonders how many shops selling what we call 'gee-gaws' will be shuttered in the current economic crisis.]

1 comment:

deb said...

An apology is due. I have not abandoned reading your blog. I'm back and caught up. Well, at least here. The rest of my life continues to over fill.

So, sorry for being out of touch for what seems like so long. And it feels good to be back.