I think in every reader’s life, we come across passages in writing that grab us emotionally, or that change something fundamental in the way we think or feel, or that we think are beautiful, or interesting, or hateful, or awful, or boring, or any number of responses. I know this has happened hundreds or thousands of times to me; I don’t count or remember every one after I’ve stopped reading. But some I do, and one in particular was a scene from Anne Stuart’s CATSPAW.
Now, I’m not an Anne Stuart fangirl. I’ll buy her books when I see them on the shelf, but I don’t usually pre-order. She’s one of those writers that produces books I always admire, but I don’t always connect with. Not always, but sometimes I do, in a big way.
I didn’t expect to with CATSPAW, because it didn’t sound like the type of story I’d usually enjoy. It was in this collection called THIEVES, SPIES, AND OTHER LOVERS and I don’t even remember how I got it, but I do remember I was living in Alaska at the time, in my dumb little studio apartment, and I can’t remember if the guy living with me had dumped me and flown off to Florida yet–and I thought I loved him, but, hey, I guess this scene has stuck with me longer than any feeling for that guy has.
In that scene, the heroine, Ferris Byrd, is telling the hero, Blackheart, why his past as a cat burglar is such an issue for her. She tells this story about when she was a girl, she saw a pair of red shoes in a store window. And although she knew that she could steal those shoes and never be caught, she didn’t take them.
And that was the blandest retelling of this scene you’ll ever see, because I’m writing it … and Anne Stuart is not. AND because there’s more to it than just a pair of shoes that Ferris Byrd (who used to be Francesca Berdahofski before she changed her name) didn’t steal. There was a girl who had very little, and who determined that her life would never be what her parents’ was, and that she’d never go without. A girl who could have easily taken those red shoes that she wanted so bad … but she didn’t. A girl who can never understand why Blackheart could steal, when a little girl who had nothing wouldn’t — and the little girl knew the only way to really escape her life was to earn her way out.
And still, I can’t begin to get across how fantastic this scene is. How Ferris’s character is revealed in a moment of absolute clarity, and the conflict in the book is illuminated perfectly, and you know every word in the book has been leading up to that scene and every word after it will have to deal with everything exposed in that scene, and as a reader, I’m sitting there thinking, “My god, that is writing done right.”
The writer in me is thinking the same thing, but suddenly that scene has become my personal pair of red shoes. I want to do that.
It would be easy, you know? I’ve got a good brain in my head. I could change the scene around, re-word it, play with it, and someone might say “This kind of reminds of that scene in that Anne Stuart book” but there’d be a lot of doubt. No one would really know, or prove anything. I could slip Anne Stuart’s red shoes into my book, and get away with it.
I’d know, though. That’d stop me right there, because I don’t handle guilt well.
But even if I didn’t stop, I’d also have to write this whole book around it to fit her shoes in, and it wouldn’t be just that scene, but a lot more I’d be taking. Because the red shoes aren’t THAT scene. There’s an unremarkable sentence in the first chapter that helps stitch the uppers to the sole. There’s the first kiss that makes the color more cherry than red. There’s the scene later, with Ferris naked except for the red shoes, and other scenes, with coffee beans and broken credit cards that are all nails in the heel. It all goes together–every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene.
And rewriting Anne Stuart’s book is going to be really freaking boring. I had a professor who once told me that writing is thinking (heh, I attribute that, even though it’s probably common knowledge — but this professor, he was one of those that made me really, really think, and I was taking his class as I was thinking about Demon Angel, and so the title of his book that he was making us read ended up in Hugh’s library, and Lilith made fun of it, because she would) but the last thing I want to do is re-think exactly that same things I did when I read Anne Stuart’s book. That kind of rewriting is not “rethinking” in the fun, transformative sense. That’s re-thinking, thinking the same thing again, being stagnant.
Oh yeah — and it was stealing.
I still wanted a pair of red shoes, though. So I got to work making my own — earning my own.
And it’s not like they are completely original, like I’ve made up the idea of shoes. I know I’ve been influenced by others, and I’ve brought in outside sources. Sometimes, I’ll write a scene, shape that heel, and then I’ll look at another writer’s similar heel and think, “Shit.” And then I’ll think about changing it, even though I wasn’t copying or lifting anything, just because it worries me so much. And sometimes I’ll rethink it … but sometimes, that heel is what the rest of the shoe demands, and anything else will make the design look like a piece of ass — or completely non-functional. So you move on, sometimes gritting your teeth, but trusting that, taken all together, it’ll be original, unique, and something to be proud of when it’s done.
More than anything, something that’s yours. And when you end up writing a scene that resonates with you like that scene in CATSPAW did, that has the same effect on you, there’s a very strange sense of humility and pride and love for what you’ve written. And, by god, you got it right. And there are sentences and paragraphs in there that you fight for, and you get it right. And even little phrases that you think, and rethink, and work at until they’re perfect, and you got it right with those, too. Then you finish it up, and you made your own goddamn shoes. And sometimes they pinch, and sometimes you can see where the stitching isn’t perfect, but they’re yours.
And they may collect nothing but one-star reviews on Amazon. The writing might be the clunkiest, shittiest thing in the universe. Your thinking might not be very original or rigorous. It might be a blog entry that no one reads, a journal article written for nothing but money, or an academic paper that your professor bleeds over, or a non-fiction piece that you sweated over and worried over and crafted with as much care as a mother with her newborn. None of that matters, good or bad, long or short, because you worked for it, and made every word your own.
Unless you didn’t. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do all of that typing.
I can imagine a couple of other things, though. I imagine that if I saw a scene in another book, with a former cat burglar and a woman trying to escape her past, that included a story about how she once didn’t steal a locket, my head would explode.
Because I wanted those red shoes so bad — but I didn’t steal them.
But it’s more than that. I don’t know how Anne Stuart feels about that scene, or about CATSPAW. Maybe she thinks its trash. Maybe she thinks the writing is awful, and worthless. Maybe she wrote it because she had to fulfill a contract. I don’t care; it means something to me. Readers own what they read, too — not in the same way as an author, but there’s ownership there. Maybe some guy who wrote about ferrets once upon a time is dead, and can’t care that someone stole his words — but somewhere, there’s someone who admired them, and who would care. (Maybe there’s a writer who obviously admired his words that should have cared, too.) And so, as a reader, not just a writer, to see someone else take what isn’t theirs just drives me crazy. To see them get away with it would be worse, because someone else might think, “Hey, look! Red shoes — I’m gonna get me some the easy way, too!” or even worse, “Hey, look! I guess that means there’s nothing wrong with getting red shoes the easy way!”
And there is always going to be someone who wants to take the easy way. Always. But if they know they can’t, if they know it’s wrong, that might stop them. If they still want to because they don’t care it’s wrong, maybe knowing there are consequences will stop them. Knowing that someone might rip away the label that isn’t theirs, and show them for what they are: someone with an empty closet.
But I’ve got a closet with red shoes. And although I still think hers are fricking awesome, I don’t need or want Anne Stuart’s anymore.