(written for the Friday Fiction “Have your character steal something…” prompt)
I don’t really know why I did it. It made no sense, really, what with me being a well known author, a celebrity amongst celebrities. Yet, there I was, sitting in my study with the curtains tightly shut to block out the rest of the world so that they couldn’t see what I was doing as I stole a glance at the book I had just purchased this morning. The book that told the story I was trying to tell, the one the world needed me to tell.
It was mid-afternoon on a dark, rainy day. I had ventured out early for my morning walk down the block to feed my addiction to double-soy-chocolate-no-fat-mocha-lattes, the purchase of which I justified by convincing myself that the fact that I walked the half mile round trip made the excessive calories manageable within my diet. I also excused it because the daily walk was useful in terms of clearing my mind, relaxing me out of my daily batch of writer’s block. I had a large, somewhat loyal base of readers, but the literary world is fickle and so there is a lot of pressure to stay fresh, poignant… real. This, I needed my latte to relax, so that I could help my readers to forget, for a few moments at least, the wretchedness of the real world they saw each night on the evening news. The reality, of course, was that there was no justifying the too many hundreds of calories contained in the small but expensive drink. But, I paid on a credit card each day, so reality really only crept in once each month.
This one dreary morning, I broke from my pattern of walking to the coffee shop, purchasing my liquid heaven and then returning home by the same route. For some reason, on this day, I think it was a Tuesday – the thirteenth, I think – I varied from my normal walk. I got to the shop and purchased my drink in my reusable mug (always doing my part to help the planet) as always. As I left, though, I spotted a little display table inside the little bookstore I always meant to go into. Something about the display drew me in, so I made sure the lid to my travel mug was tightly closed and I stepped inside.
I breathed deeply of the uniquely fragrant air of the bookstore. There is simply something wonderful about the smell of a bookstore. Maybe it was my love of this smell that made me become a writer. Being a writer gave me an excuse to be around books – in bookstores, libraries, bathrooms… it didn’t matter where, as an author I would have access to any place that had a book in it. After the bookstore-air-induced goose bumps faded, I walked over to the little table that had caught my eye from outside on the rainy sidewalk. It was a small table with about thirty copies of a new children’s book by an author I had never heard of.
“That’s such a great book,” said the perky young woman watching me from behind the sales desk. “It’s a shame that the publisher isn’t very aggressive and since she’s a new author it just isn’t selling. That’s why we’ve got to discount it so heavily. But it is a fabulous book, a must read.” With that, the salesperson went back to doing whatever it is that salespeople do when they are pretending not to be watching you shop.
I picked up a copy of the book and held it in my hands. My heart was pounding as I turned it over in my hands. A new book always did this to me, but this was different. This was more. I looked at the cover again. It had dinosaurs and monkeys and zebras and jelly fish and grasshoppers on it. The title of the yellow book was printed in friendly looking, rainbow colors. “Friends” it was named. Simple enough, I thought. I flipped it over and read the description. The book was about friendship and dealing with bullies and treating everyone equally. I held my breath more tightly than I held the book. This was the very story I was attempting to write. Different animals were in mine, perhaps, but I was writing the same book, with the same moral. Except that I wasn’t – I couldn’t.
I had never written a children’s book before, even as a kid writing gibberish on the walls of my bedroom. Gory horror is what I wrote, from the moment I could hold a crayon. It was what had made me famous. But my publisher was all about branching out and trying new things, doing something different. “You don’t want people to think you are just another depressed, psychotic demon, do you?” they said. “Once they think that, they’ll stop buying your books.” I tried to explain that the only thing that was keeping me from becoming just another depressed, psychotic demon was writing these books, but they just wouldn’t listen. Publishers are just a step above lawyers when it comes to stuff like that. I was fully convinced that it was wrong and dead-set against it. No way would I do it.
I found my moral conviction against writing a children’s book about friendship was weakened when the big advance check cleared and was posted to my account. So, I found myself trying to tell kids to be nice to each other, even if the new kid was a filthy cockroach and the neighbor girl was a bat-faced freak. My trouble with writing this book wasn’t in putting words on paper. I had never had trouble with that. It was in making it all make sense. I mean, why would a glorious, magnificent, majestic lioness be bothered with worrying about the feelings of doubt that a downcast, green-feathered chicken with test anxiety might have? The lion would simply eat the chicken. The chicken would no longer be worried about tests or feathers or anything else for that matter; the lion would no longer be hungry. All problems solved, no mess to clean up later. Two birds with one stone, as it were. But my editor didn’t agree. “That’s not how it works in children’s literature,” he said. “They have to help each other… the lion helps the chicken study while the chicken teaches the lion about the health and environmental benefits of a vegan diet.”
Now, I like a good veggie burger as much as the next carnivore does, and as I already explained I have soy milk in my latte every day. But this friendship between the lion and the chicken just wasn’t right and no amount of walking to get a soy latte was going to fix it for me. But here in my hands, was proof that it could be done. Before I knew it, I was paying the way too cute girl behind the desk and walking out, the mug of latte in one hand, the yellow book with smiling animals on the cover in the other hand.
I walked home quickly, hoping that inspiration would hit me as soon as I got through the door. It could be done, I thought loudly to myself. If some no-name newbie author could make it work, so could I. I set my new, still unread purchase on the counter in the kitchen and headed to my office. The laptop’s boot sequence took forever, of course, as I twittered and shook with impatience. I launched the word processor so quickly that it opened four sessions of it instead of one. I must have double or triple or quadruple clicked it in my hasty effort to get started. Finally ready, I put my hands to the keyboard and waited for inspiration to strike.
Hours went by and the screen was still as white and pristine as the moment it had first opened. Every sentence I wrote, every paragraph, ended up proving Darwin’s theories about survival of the fittest far more successfully than they proved that different people could get along and so I had to delete every one of them. I finally got up and paced the room, sipping my now ice cold and gross latte. I peeked through the office door at the yellow book in the kitchen. Could I read it? Would it be wrong for me to read it and then write my own book with the same moral? Did my editor know about this book? Would it be considered stealing if I read it before writing my own?
It would be stealing, I concluded, after consulting with my inner moral compass.
But even so, would it be wrong? I mean, it is a very important message, this message of getting along. If only everyone would just shut up and get along already, the world would be so much better! So, it was clearly important to the world that I write this book. I was the one who could help those poor, unknowing kids to learn that it is okay to be different. I could help their parents understand how to teach the children these lessons. It was a message that needed to be delivered and one that needed me to deliver it. Besides, the lady at the bookstore had said that the book wasn’t selling, because no one knew the author. Imagine how it would sell with my name on it in giant letters! Everyone knew me, and with this book being so different from everything else I had ever written, people would buy it just out of curiosity. Of course, I would give all of the profits to a children’s charity. That would make the book sell even better. I’m sure this author, little Miss Unknown, would never notice the similarity with her own book, and even if she did, she would agree that the importance of getting my name on it so that people would hear the message far outweighed her copyright. Maybe I would even put in a good word for her with my publisher, perhaps getting her a good deal for a second book.
Having justified it, I closed the blinds and ran to the book, dumping the remainder of my useless latte in the sink on my way. I opened the book ravenously, yet still careful not to damage the binding. And I read.
The book was so sweet. It was smart. It was funny. It was the most wonderful book not written by me that I had ever read. I read it over again and again, maybe ten times in all, as I figured it out, unearthed its secrets and made them my own. Satisfied that I had enough knowledge now, I set the book down and went back to my computer and typed. I typed for hours. My jokes were funnier than those I had just read. My hero was smarter than the one I had just read about. My tears were truer and wetter than those shed in the book I had just read. I was so pleased with my work, I didn’t even proofread, I just saved it and emailed it to my editor and then I waited for the phone to ring.
I had figured it out and my thievery, which I and I alone knew about, would never be found. I had read over and under and between each line of the book about being friends and I finally was able to extract the one thing worth stealing and I took it without hesitation, for it was important that I take it. It was necessary.
The book did not tell a story about all these animals that traditionally would not survive together suddenly beating their fangs into plowshares and liking each other – it simply didn’t talk about the part where the fangs were used for the very purpose that they evolved – to destroy the other animals. The book simply ended before that part, innocently leaving out the gory bits so that the children would get the message that the author wanted, by showing the bits where the animals had to work together to free themselves from some situation, some frustration, that they couldn’t free themselves from while working alone. If the book had continued for another page or two after the animals had gotten out of the situation, they would have pummeled and maimed each other into a bloody mess. The key, it seemed was to stop the story just before everyone destroyed the other characters that they just couldn’t stand. In other words, it was a story that would lead up to something that I would normally write, the reason for all of the gory, bloody anger that filled all of my books.
Therefore, my book was really, truly, an original work after all. It told the story of a chicken, a cat, a zebra and a giraffe and how they all had to get along. The reason they had to get along was that they were all inside the stomach of a giant, mutant lion with acid reflux disease. At first the animals were not nice to each other, the giraffe was made fun of for being too tall, the zebra was made fun of for wearing vertical stripes after Labor Day, the chicken was made fun of for not being able to fly. The cat was the one that made fun of all the other animals because, well, cats are pompous that way. The story centered upon the plight of these animals as they tried to extricate themselves from their dark confines, all the while trying to avoid the boiling pools of stomach acid. They hatched a plan to get out, though the cat kept wondering why no one would simply provide the beast with a Zantac and help a fellow out. So, they ran around and around. Of course, all of their running and pecking and scratching caused the lion to have indigestion, and in the end the lion threw up, allowing them all to escape, only to get eaten again, this time one at a time. The moral, of course, was to eat what you take but only take your share.
My editor didn’t quite get the moral and certainly didn’t get that I had stolen the idea for the book from another author. In the end, my theft left me feeling angry and alone, isolated, because I could no longer trust myself in a bookstore. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror anymore, let alone go to book signings or anything in public. My secret shame for stealing someone else’s writing method has stayed with me until this very day, and so I am stuck, languishing in the world of blogs and biographical studies, never leaving the house, never interacting with anyone. Except for the pretty barrista at the coffee shop. She still gives me my daily latte in my reusable cup. I have to keep trying to save the world, after all, so I’ll put in the effort to have my cup be reused. Every day. For the children.