Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Word Thief

My wife is forever warning people to watch what they say in my presence, lest their words end up in one of my books. Fiction writers can be - and are - shameless about stealing comments, gestures, appearances, tics, anything that will help move a story along. But until today, I'd never realized how deeply this trait is ingrained.

After last week's blog about Building Brands, I decided to provide my own antidote by writing about my literary hero, the late John Jerome. In the September 29, 2002 New York Times Book Review, Bruce McCall labeled him "hands down...the most successful writer I've ever known." Jerome wrote eleven books, none of which came close to being a best seller. For Jerome, the writing was its own reward, preferable to money or fame. He "inquired into the uncommonness of common things," McCall wrote. "He believed he was mining worthy insights." After having read Jerome's book, ON TURNING SIXTY-FIVE, I'll testify to the worthiness of his insights. I recommend the work to anyone of any age.

According to McCall, Jerome "was up and at the keyboard before sunrise every morning, as close to 365 days a year as he could manage, fashioning his daily thousand or more words of meticulous prose, writing away the years as if he were being paid a thousand dollars an hour." McCall also noted, "He would have made a lousy celebrity in any event. He never met a cocktail party he couldn't bolt in a minute, hated public speaking, cultivated no connections." Not that he was anti-social - he had many friends, and was active daily outside his writing room. But as McCall put it, he "was in the best sense, an old-fashioned kind of writer, inspired by solitude, soothed by privacy, a respecter of craft who couldn't cut a corner or miss a deadline or tolerate a typo." My kind of guy.

But as I read through the article to refresh my memory, I stopped cold as I came across Jerome's maxim: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." All I could do was laugh. That quote appeared word-for-word in my own book, THE KING OF RAGTIME, in the mouth of Eleanor Stark, to describe her father, John Stark, Scott Joplin's publisher, to a T. I wrote that book in 2007-2008, five-plus years after the publication of Bruce McCall's article, and when Eleanor Stark's comment popped up on my computer screen, I had no idea where she'd gotten it from. Guilty as charged! Watch what you say around me.

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