Part of the Pour

by jkatejohnston

31 March 2014

Dear Max,

You know I love writing problems, so here’s one: what do you do about things that you steal? So far in my book I’ve counted four out-and-out thefts from other people’s writing, and there’s one thing I’m planning to steal but haven’t got there yet. I can’t stand the idea of literary allusion—this in-crowd assumption that everybody’s read all the same books I have. But it also seems horribly pretentious to give attribution—like, look at all the books I’ve read that you probably haven’t. And I haven’t even read that many, but there are a few that I’ve memorized parts of.

And of course the real problem is: does the stolen stuff work? I don’t see why it shouldn’t. Like stories you hear in real life or things that happen, stuff you’ve read does bubble up and seem to fit sometimes. If books are not life, what is? I have great sympathy with plagiarists.

Anyway, here’s an example. A few days ago, I wrote about that scene from A Suitable Boy where the in-court dialogue starts up at, “Sixthly, your honor.” And as I was writing about it I thought, Why can’t I do that? And then I thought, I will do that. So I wrote this:

Now we were back in the home court for oral arguments on my motion to dismiss. Judge Staveley called our case last, knowing it would take the longest. Michael stood in the caged area for in-custody defendants, and I stood beside him, working my way through a list titled Things Not To Forget. It was late afternoon, and my feet were starting to hurt.

“…and fifthly your honor—”

“Counsel. Is there going to be a sixthly?”

“Yes, judge. What can I say? The case is overcharged.”

“Let’s take a break.” Judge Staveley was about seven months pregnant, and the privilege of calling a recess whenever she needed to pee was surely a major perk.

Whatever’s wrong with that, I don’t think it’s the sixthly.


Another writing problem: Most of what Enzo says is just a kind of outpouring, some funny, most boring, often incomprehensible, all mixed together. I like to leave out the boring and incomprehensible parts, and that leaves what seems like a collection of one-liners. The tone is wrong, the proportions are off. I mean, he’s not doing stand-up, he’s living life.

I’m putting a kid in my book, and I used Jonah’s line: “If you ever see a gleam of light shining, that is me.” (I gave the kid Jonah’s red hair too.) When Jonah said that, it was just part of the pour. Taken out of the flow of ordinary talk, it sounds sort of oracular and strange. I don’t think I can use it.