Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Imitation vs. Inspiration

I had a creative breakthrough on the play I'm writing, and it could have happened a lot earlier, but I was resistant. After hearing my idea, which was loosely based on an incident in my family, my teacher suggested that I read the play The Loman Family Picnic by Donald Margulies, but he also cautioned, "It may be too similar."

That scared me. There have been many times when I've had promising creative ideas only to find out they'd "already been done" or a similar one had just sold. Since I was writing my first-ever play, and Margulies has won a Pulitzer, I decided
it might take the wind out of my sails, and I avoided it.

It was a silly impulse, in a way. Unless you grew up in a Kaspar Hauser box, you are exposed to all kinds of things that add up to who you are, and unless you are an out-and-out plagiarist, whatever comes out of you will be unique to you. When I was first learning to write magazine pieces, I had already been reading them for a decade, and I devoured the best ones (Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Kenneth Tynan's profile of Johnny Carson) to get a handle on what I respected and aspired to.

When I decided to write TV scripts, I read a lot of them to understand, and imitate, the form. When I needed to write a spec pilot, I went to the Paley Center (then the Museum of TV & Radio) and watched a half dozen pilots I respected like "Hill Street Blues" to absorb how characters were introduced, and what kinds of stories planted the seeds for long-term storytelling. It was incredibly helpful without being daunting.

Yet here I was avoiding the play, even though I owned it -- years ago, after seeing Margulies' Dinner With Friends (which HBO did a lame, all-star adaptation of), I had bought a collection of his plays headlined by Sight Unseen, -- and never read any.  It was one of those books you buy on impulse and then never quite get around to cracking.

In fits and starts, I made headway in my own play, but I started to run into problems: how would I compress or leap across gaps in chronology? Who was the play about? How could I make it more decisively a play, as opposed to a sitcom?

So finally I cracked open "The Loman Family Picnic," Margulies' 1989 drama set in the aspiring middle-class apartment towers of Coney Island in 1965, and the very first piece of dialogue was the mother speaking "to us" (the audience). After a page of monologue, her son enters and the play seamlessly went into action. Throughout Margulies employed direct address, offstage characters, and an onstage character who had died years earlier, and it was like it sprang open a door for me.

I added direct address introduction and transitions to the scenes I had already written, which allowed the lead character to comment on, or even try to cover up, the events, and also helped build to the ending I had already envisioned. Pages started flowing out of me like water. I brought the pages into class and everyone agreed I had finally cracked the play.

What's most hilarious about my resistance is that Margulies' play itself explicitly refers, even in its title, to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Margulies didn't run away from his inspiration, he grabbed it and took it for a ride in a personal direction.

In the book's afterword, Margulies writes, "I was eleven when I read Death of A Salesman, and I remember the guilt and shame I felt for recognizing in the Lomans truths about my own family....I studied it with great fascination, as if it were a key to understanding what was happening to the people I loved, so that I might somehow alter my family's fate....I imagined that our high-rise was one of the buildings that overshadowed the Lomans' modest house."

He saw that image through to fruition years later, after his parents had died and he felt freer to write about them. My parents are both gone now too, which definitely help me tackle this subject. But I also had to allow myself permission to learn how without worrying that I was copying something. It's an important lesson to hold on to.


Leslie said...

David -- This post was a great relief to read. I have the same fears, and the same stack of books I'm worried about cracking, in case I discover I've been a fraud all this time. I have an autistic alternate personality who can shout only "derivative" over and over into my ear as I write. Is this a Jewish thing, or a writer thing? Thank you for making me feel less alone this morning... L

Jacob Slichter said...

Yes, great post.

I think about this from time to time and tell myself that whatever it is I'm writing is unique because it's me doing the telling.

I saw both of the movies about Truman Capote and In Cold Blood a few years back and though it was odd that two movies overlapped to such an extent, I enjoyed seeing both. The creative voices of both projects were sufficiently distinct to make seeing both of them worthwhile.

Robert said...

Can you imagine if someone had said to Shakespeare, "Hey Bill, the kid has Mommy issues? I think I've seen that before. Try something else."

Read nothing, David! Just write what's in your heart. You can't go wrong that way. (that goes fro you, too, Leslie!)

barbara said...

I can't wait to read a draft!!! Great post. Maybe there's a book in this...instead of WRITERS ON WRITING...maybe it should be WRITERS ON NOT WRITING.... :)