“The Thief’s Mentality truly is, in my opinion, a bit of a world all its own, something different than what I’ve seen in my editing queue or even in the library where I work part time,” –Autumn Conley
“And now for something completely different,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
“Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle,” Dean Ween Group.
“Just because something is different, or strange, doesn’t mean it isn’t quality material,” Dan Gillespie.
The search is for something different is over. Critics might say many things about The Thief’s Mentality, but I don’t think anyone will question its originality. How many times do we go to the bookstore (online or otherwise), scouring the racks for something different? We don’t even know what we’re looking for, but we know it when we see it. When we find it, we can’t wait to get home, crack the binding, and enter into another author’s slice of life. Most book lovers enjoy other art forms, but there’s nothing more exciting to us than finding a truly original book. When we think we’ve found it, we tell our friends and family, and we call it a “find”. A find is the book lover’s literary equivalent to the reward an archaeologist who spent their whole life digging through some catacombs.
Some book lovers call themselves book connoisseurs, but there are others. We love books so much that the term “book snob” does not phase us. We are a group of book lovers who have read so many books, and been through so many finds, that our desperate search for something original becomes more and more difficult with time. Some of us grow so frustrated that we decide to create our own. We want our own “Take that bottle off the thing. Put it over on the dingle” lyrics. We want to create something unique and weird, and meaningless and poignant at the same time. The constraints restricting (and constricting) an author of any fictional and non-fiction art form are far greater than those of a lyricist, of course, but some avid readers are so hungry to find a different book that we decide to write our own.
As The Thief’s Mentality proves, writing is not a science. It’s an art form. What’s the formula for a great story? Is there one? I think all aspiring authors should cancel their subscription to Writer’s Digest and throw their ‘How to Write Best-Seller’ books in the nearest fire. Most authors of these books have never written one, so why do we follow their advice? This author has never written one either, but I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and it’s so simple that most won’t follow it in favor of the lengthy, more professorial advice ‘how to’ authors provide. In Stephen King’s On Writing, King gives us the super-secret sauce to success: reading a ton and writing a ton. To understand the art form of storytelling at its most primal level, it’s the only piece of advice worth considering. Step one in this process involves the aspiring author reading so often that they want to read something decidedly different from anything they’ve ever read before. Step two involves writing so often that the writer almost accidentally creates something different. The aspiring writer should also forget about writing a best-seller and turn their focus on the only elements in their control. I wish I could take credit for thinking up these two elements, but they are Ray Bradbury’s advice, “Find your own truth”. Another piece of advice I take from singer Stephen Malkmus, “Story is sacred.” He sang that the “song is sacred”, but you get the point.
It is important that an aspiring author learn the rules of their craft. They need to know how to spell and have a decent grasp of the grammatical rules, but no aspiring author should let that keep them from writing. At its most primal level, a storyteller should know how to tell a story? They should also learn how to generate reactions to everything from their grandiose, all-American tales to the tale they tell about their trip to Walgreens’. Write your story and learn the rules as you go. We all know those writers who can write a grammatically correct story with no spelling errors, because most of them will highlight all of our errors, but can they tell a great story? Most of them are excellent critics. It’s been my experience that if you write an excellent, captivating story, most readers (critics aside) will forgive the occasional error.
There is a continental divide between seeking success and finding it, just as there is a similar divide between the art connoisseur and the rest of us. Those of us in the “book lover” contingent have spent our 10,000 hours reading a wide range of books, until we reached a point Malcolm Gladwell might describe as a tipping point. This point of burnout is as hard to define as it is to see coming, but at some point, we know the formulas of most of the genres so well that we know them too well, and all the joy of figuring it all out has dissipated, and that’s when our search for something different begins.
The Nature of the Artist
One of the primary reasons most authors don’t write something different is that it is very frustrating and extremely hard. Those who haven’t tried it might fall prey to the notion that every revolutionary, transcendent artistic creation is simply the product of a talented author. What is a talented author of a book, a painting, or a transcendent song? Suggesting that one is talented suggests that the fruits of their labor are somehow God-given, otherworldly, or something that they should use. I think the term talented, more often than not, shortchanges a creator, for it allows us all to avoid the discussion of how hard they worked.
We average-to-below average artists find some comfort in the idea that the great author just had more God-given ability, and this allows us to leave out some crucial details of the labor involved. When we look at Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre, for example, we might describe him as a comprehensive thinker, but he had comparatively few artistic creations. Those of us who know how hard he worked on each creation, thanks in part to Walter Isaacson’s book on da Vinci, know the excruciating amount of work he put into the pain-staking detail of each piece. As evidence of this, one reviewer of his book claimed that Isaacson’s book was nothing more than a boring recitation of da Vinci’s process. “A boring recitation of the process?” we ask, “of someone many consider the greatest artist of all time?” Before launching into a book-length rant against the reviewer, creative types must remind ourselves that non-creative types might find a compelling, thoroughly detailed book regarding the artistic mindset of a master a little boring. “Da Vinci was not only talented but smart. We got it already,” was the theme of such snarky reviews. They don’t seem to care that da Vinci combined an unusual understanding of science and mechanics with art, based on extensive experimentation and trial and error, and he used them in his work. They end the discussion with the conclusion that da Vinci had an unprecedented ability to portray real life artistically, and their reply to anything beyond that is, “We got it already.” That just seems like such a violation.
Creating something different is so hard that most creators stop at some point in the discovery process. They decide, instead, to create a story from a master’s template, hoping that adding their voice will be unique enough that no one will consider it derivative. This isn’t to say that authors of a given genre plagiarize other authors, but when they read one author’s books too often, they cannot hide the influence. Their inspired book might even be entertaining and informative, but it does have a disappointing sameness to it. The idea that one book is more entertaining, or more informative, than another is relative to the reader, but the author of The Thief’s Mentality doesn’t know how anyone could read this book and declare it derivative or formulaic.
The author did not write these essays for the sole purpose of producing something different, just to be different however. Some artists are different in a kitschy manner we all enjoy, but others are different in an altogether fundamental and organic manner. These artists excite me, and they have my whole life. Their adventures don’t always work, of course, but isn’t that what makes the successful forays into the different that much more?
The Thief’s Menality’s biggest influences are those artists who displayed breathtaking originality at one point in their career. No one artist influenced The Thief’s Mentality, and no one piece from any of these artists did either, but I’m not going to deny there wasn’t some influence from the myriad of books I’ve read over time. At some point in my favorite artists’ careers, they made a break from their formula, and it often occurred after they achieved a certain level of acceptance. For some artists, this foray into something different was a one-off. They were slapped back by their fans telling the world that they love every book in the author’s catalog, except this one. The negative Amazon review can be a powerful force in an author’s mind. Those who loved the switch were able to brave the harsh winds, and for them, the switch proved so invigorating that they didn’t mind the diminished sales and prestige they had in the industry. Their interest in “the formula” that landed them there began to wane, and they viewed the switch as invigorating in an artistic sense. For them, the temporary switch proved fundamental.
Their subsequent artistic creations were so unusual and revolutionary that the artist’s closest friends and family members didn’t see them coming. “I don’t know where that came from,” they confess. “They were on a different level when they created that piece.”
After sorting through the various books in the genre of social sciences, philosophy, humor, and entertainment, we discovered a book we considered a transcendent book of breathtaking originality. It is a book by David McRaney called You are Not so Smart. Amid all of the Malcolm Gladwell books, the Freakonomics books, and all of the books influenced by them, You are Not so Smart reached this author on this very personal “Something different” level. It provided a blueprint for how to formulate The Thief’s Mentality. If the fan of that book decides to read this one, they might not find many similarities after all of the work that followed that initial inspiration, but You are Not so Smart appealed to us on such a personal level that we wanted to write our own version of it.
Even art connoisseurs initially greet breathtakingly original creations with confusion, disappointment and suspicion. “Why didn’t they just stick with what they do best?” we ask. Another question we ask is how can any person, even a critic who gets paid to listen to music, listen to an album one time and know that it is “revolutionary, brilliant, and a tour-de-force!” We all know that critics often receive advanced copies, but they don’t appear to need time to process the unique greatness of the material. Most people need a little time to appreciate works of breathtaking originality and transcendent qualities. Once their brilliance is processed and we lick the carcass clean, we all realize how brilliant their decidedly risky venture was. The artists who had the largest impact on The Thief’s Mentality were often unusual, offbeat individual trailblazers who viewed the world from a very different corner.
It’s almost impossible to escape some influence in any artistic pursuit, but we think that all of the rewriting and editing of these essays have drained whatever influence may have inspired us to begin writing them. All but two of the essays contain unique experiences we’ve had with the unique people we’ve encountered in life, so the only probability for influence lies in the analysis, but thanks to hundreds of rewrites, we don’t think the author of the piece who provided some momentary influences would be able to spot their role in it.