My mother is a master quilter. She has the ability to see, in a collection of fabrics, the intricate wee triangles and squares that will create a balance of colour and motion. The art of quilting originated from necessity – the absence of a large fabric met by joining small scraps of old clothing.
Many writers create in the same way, but it isn’t the rag bag that they pillage their bits of colour and texture from.
Most writers I know have an incredible capacity for information. The whole ‘write what you know’ is set aside for write what speaks to you. History, art, music, all the behavioural sciences, and just plain old people, we dive into them with the ability to hold our breath for minutes, hours, days if need be to absorb what it takes to feed the desire to know.
In my early days as a pillager, I often confused this subject immersion as a more lasting interest and, as a result, have (to list the less embarrassing escapades) learned to play piano, trombone, tambourine, recorder, penny whistle, guitar, bodhrán, banjo, Scottish pipes, and fiddle. I’ll pause here to say, I’m not a musical person, so by the time I’d created a main character who played uillean pipes, I’d learned to research the experience with a pen, not pipes.
Here’s where peril begins to happen. A book or craft or musical instrument, no matter how deep a relationship we form with it, does not respond in kind. A person is quite different altogether. There’s a sort of ethics to pillaging from a person. For instance, regardless how kickass their metaphors are, how powerful their stories, I wouldn’t take one from a client. The dynamics in that type of relationship make asking an unfair thing.
Those ethics shouldn’t apply only to a therapeutic relationship, though. To take a friend’s stories without asking is worse than stealing their cutlery when they’ve invited you over for dinner. Taking another writer’s metaphor or theme or story is a capital crime. And most of us know that.
Unfortunately, there are no ethics in the treatment of writers, and that’s where the peril of pillaging lurks. There is a type of person out there who can do a real mind fuck on you and you never see it coming.
A little psych lesson. The act of creation for a writer, all this pillaging and plunder I’ve been rabbiting on about, it has something to do with ego boundaries. Ours tend to be semi-permeable. We can empathise til the cows come home. Normal people see that for what it is. A few may think we care more for them than we do, which isn’t to say we don’t care about them.
But when Neil Gaiman looks up from a book he’s signing, smiles sincerely to a teenage boy who absolutely loves Ocean at the End of the Lane, then says something nice to his mother because the boy’s too star stuck to speak, Gaiman is being empathetic and kind, and probably doesn’t remember the boy five minutes later.
And on some level, the boy knows that. He’ll show Gaiman’s dedication to his friends, tell them how genuine and real Gaiman is. Now think about Gaiman’s behaviour. It only has meaning, it only has power in the context of a famous person taking fifteen seconds to acknowledge a teenager. If I who am standing behind that teen in the queue smiled at him sincerely, he’d move closer to his mother and break all eye contact.
So we've established normal, at least for us. Let's go to abnormal. Hopefully you’re still with me, because here’s where it gets dicey. This pillaging that you do in order to write, you probably don’t turn it off. An old guy on the bus strikes up a conversation and if you’re in the mood, you carry your end, ask more questions than answer, learn all sorts of things about him and walk away having given nothing of yourself.
Sometimes, that casual conversation turns into coffee, turns into swapping books, turns into friendship. Sometimes this person is a bit emotional. Sometimes you have to be the more understanding person. Sometimes, if you have a bad day and decide to go caving, as I call taking a break from social interaction, this person calls the police after six hours. Or your mother. All your friends.
And that seems cute. You feel bad for making that person worry.
But these cute, idiosyncratic moments multiply. The friendship becomes care-taking becomes hard work. You think this person’s going through a bad time, it’ll blow over. Life’s hard. You’ve been there. You’ve plundered stories from other lives that have been there. This person’s your really good friend. You have so much history together.
And then one day, this person attacks you. And continues to attack you but won’t let you respond. Then blocks all access to him, tells your friends what a shit you are, takes some of them with him. You’re left with the confusion of what-the-hell-did-I-do and the ugliness spilled over all the memories you share with this person.
What’s that all about?
Well, some people out there are really badly damaged. Their ego boundaries aren’t just permeable; they’re goddam shaky. They need someone else’s boundaries to hold the amoeba of themselves. Your interest in this person, your intense, flattering interest means something very different than friendship to them. Because their ego boundaries have never been properly put into place, your wit and verbal skills, vast information base, creative spark, all the good things that you’ve spent a lifetime building, those now belong to him.
Which is why, if you go caving, they freak out and call the Mounties. And, when life gets stressful, if you fail to sooth them the way a mother soothes a baby, they will attack and vilify you.
This sort of thing could happen to anyone, not just writers. It’s why we have stalking laws. It’s a core of domestic abuse and bunny boiling. But I think, perhaps wrongly, that because writers have this huge initial investment in new people – we’re curious as hell, ask questions, work to understand because it’s how we create – we don’t see the forest for the trees sometimes.
The danger of all this is the memory it leaves you with, the learning that life is dangerous and you’re not able to see it coming. If it happens more than once, then you think you obviously ask for it. You’re the person who’s not a very good friend and you don’t even know why. That type of damage done is pretty hard to recover from. It is, indeed, perilous.
These people are hard to spot initially because when you’re good to them, you’re very, very good. It seems like a genuine friendship. Your best defence is your current social circle.
Listen to what your tried and true friends tell you about the new friends you make. Look at the new friend's other relationships – are they bizarre? Are they secretive about normal things? Think about the stories they tell you, the believability of them. Real life isn’t lived in dramatic arcs.
Most of all, be aware that your propensity to pillage distorts the boundaries. Don’t be overly forgiving in the beginning – forgiveness is earned, not a free pass you give to someone who interests you. Walk away from anyone who wants exclusivity to your time and friendship, who tries to interfere with your established friendships or hobbies or most especially, your caving time.
Writers aren’t formed in quite the same way as non-writers. Pillage to your heart's content, make new friends, but always, always, always take care of yourself.