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Ralph Pezzullo Headshot

How to Steal Like a Writer

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When asked about his writing influences, the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin responded, "Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright." The irony is that he was purloining as he said it, paraphrasing the great T.S. Eliot, who stated, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal."

To my mind, it's not a question of borrowing or stealing; it's responding to the writing that turns you on, trying to imitate it, finding that imitation lacking, and in the process of striving to improve on it, stumbling upon a style of your own.

All of this starts with reading. In my case, a lot of it. I grew up in places like La Paz, Bolivia, Saigon, Vietnam, and Bogota, Colombia in the 1960s as the son of a U.S. diplomat. Television wasn't a distraction, because in some places it didn't exist at the time, and, where it did exist, offered little to watch except for wrestling and soap operas.

I spent my free time reading. Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackery, Wolfe, Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville, Cooper, Twain, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Beckett...The list went on and on. So many creative and brilliant ways of telling a story, evoking time and place, building characters, and bringing human conflict to life.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was learning how to become a writer. I never took a class, or attended a writer's workshop. I simply stole, or to put it a nicer way, responded to what I liked and riffed. I admired Shakespeare sense of character and drama, Hemingway's and Henry Miller's direct, journalistic style, the musicality and sensuality of Neruda's and Machado's poetry, Tennessee William's and Pinter's ironic humor and revealing dialogue.

What they all had in common was a great sense of yearning, which I learned was the impetus of all creativity. Writing to me is painting, playing music, dancing, and making love in words. It's taking hammer and chisel to Michaelanglo's David and trying to make it sing.

My mentors were giants. They taught me not to waste the reader's time. To be direct and concise. It only takes a few brushstrokes. Don't do too much. When it works, writing is a duet between the writer and reader's imaginations. There are great writers who speak the code of the subconscious and great readers. It takes both.

Engage the imagination quickly and pull it into the conflict. That's where the juice is. Establish your characters and let them speak and act as themselves. Get out of the way.

When it comes to thrillers, which to my mind are the books that best capture the pace, confusion, and drama of our time, my favorites are Ian Fleming and John LeCarré. Fleming because of his economy, elegance, and colorful audacity. LeCarré because of the way he frames existential moral dilemmas in our era of mass nuclear and ecological suicide. How's that for human drama?

You mean to tell me that if Dickens or Dostoevsky were alive today they wouldn't be writing thrillers? Two guys who liked to get to the messy heart of things?

Both Fleming and LeCarré seek to entertain and enlighten and warn at the same time. Maybe Fleming is the more skillful and flamboyant entertainer. Maybe LeCarré is more interested in the toll the modern world takes on the human soul. I try to borrow at little from them both.

Ralph Pezullo is the co-author of the new book SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Jackal.