At a Toronto International Film Festival screening years ago when they weren’t yet calling it TIFF and were still using musty, rundown rep theatres with faint glimmers of past elegance - I showed up to a screening and grabbed my favourite spot on the left aisle about ten from the front, guaranteed to ensure a view regardless of height, hair or hat. Few people took this seat by choice, unless nothing else was left. But I always went straight to it.
The film had just started. Toronto filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa was looking anxiously for a seat. The one beside me was empty. He had no idea who I was, but I recognized him. A friend in film once introduced us. It was dark and hard to see. I whispered his name loudly, or maybe just said “there’s a seat here.” He looked grateful and sank into it.
When the film was over, emboldened by my earlier generosity, I asked if he found it hard to see other people’s films for fear of being influenced by them. He looked at me as if it was both an invasive and insulting question and said “No.”
At the time I felt stupid. Looking back, I wonder how he responded with such certainty. It wasn’t exactly a yes or no question. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk to me.
Understanding there’s almost no such thing as originality, that most creation is re-creation, I’m preoccupied with influence, derivation, appropriation, imitation as flattery, plagiarism. I think about these things regularly, now that I’m writing and reading full time. I started constructing long, complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses, and realized I was channeling Michael Chabon.
I recently reread The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I was blown away by the writing in a way I wasn’t the first time - metaphors, similes and images so beautifully constructed, so moving and funny, I read them over and over to myself and to others. They say reading makes you a better writer. There’s no question about that. But I now believe that writing has made me a better reader. I read differently – with both more and less tolerance, generosity and critical spirit.
In the past I’ve been impatient with literary devices, annoyed when someone inserted lengthy poems (A.S. Byatt’s Possession) or philosophical treatises (Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain) in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good story. I’m kind of a narrative girl, impatient to know what happens. Not that I don’t care if it’s well written – I do. Bad writing gets in the way of a good story. But I often experience meandering or plodding about in description as an unnecessary detour or showing off– like stopping in the middle of a hike to do a pirouette. Now I get that there might be a place for pirouettes during a hike.
I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, ya another Pulitzer prize fiction winner (book choices are not the area in which I exercise originality). I feel myself pulled toward her wonderfully crafted, edgy, speedy, painful observations that make me care about people that are hard to like, managing, so far at least, through sharp observation and quirky tenderness to avoid falling into the trap of too hip or too cool.
So where does this leave me? Over the course of writing a novel and memoir I have and will come upon many styles, techniques and, yes, even devices. They have influenced and will influence me. I can only hope that as people read their way through my work, should it ever move beyond blogosphere into published sphere, they don’t feel themselves stumbling awkwardly from Chabon into Egan into Capote or Tobias Wolff ; that my voice and ideas, regardless of my influences and attempts (if only slightly) to emulate them, will ultimately be Rubin.
…Occasionally he’d take his children down into the Sifto mine and although Margaret was sixteen when they’d moved, and still angry at being dragged away from her life in Victoria, she couldn’t help but be dazzled by the glittery mountains of salt - loving the idea that this simple accompaniment to dinner provided the supporting structure for the miles of mine stretching under Lake Huron - its beams, walls and ceilings.