As an English / Creative Writing major in college, I had an awesome professor–the guy who’s honest about your work, but constructive, the teacher who, even if your work isn’t the greatest, can see the kernel of an amazing story in there and help you draw it out. He helped me figure out what it meant to be a writer, and how writers truly live their work.
One way he did that was by making us use other books for inspiration, particularly Gregory Crewdson’s spectacular tome Beneath the Roses*. Within are full-page photographs of empty streets, of a old crone sitting alone at her kitchen table, of lovers on a mattress beneath the sky. But no words. Just a picture, and all the stories my professor assigned us to write. At the end each one was different, although some looked at the exact same picture.
This is what I thought of today when I picked up my very own copy of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. If you haven’t heard of the book, it’s a collaboration of 14 contemporary authors to give voice and story to the cryptic illustrations supposedly created by the titular Harris Burdick; in fact, Chris Van Allsburg is the true artist, having drawn the images and paired them with sometimes fantastic, sometimes ominous, and always odd sentences. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m going to start tonight, and I can’t wait. Along with Van Allsburg’s story, Burdick contains works from Cory Doctorow, Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Louis Sachar, Tabitha King, Jon Scieszka, Gregory Maguire, Linda Sue Park, and Jules Pfeiffer. If that ain’t a literary all-star cast, I don’t what is. Oh, and it’s got an intro from Lemony Snicket himself. Aces.
The best thing about this book, though, is that it, like the writings my class produced, resulted from the work of another book. Van Allsburg’s illustrations are not native to this new collection, but to a book he wrote 25 years before. And even better? These authors aren’t the first to interpret the illustrations. Hundreds of thousands of children all over have had the opportunity to do the same. It is, after all, this legacy that’s led to The Chronicles of Harris Burdick in the first place.
Using this kind of inspiration for writing is great, in my opinion, because the creative act can be seem so difficult to writers, and when the path seems difficult, many writers may choose poorly between what is right and what is easy, creatively speaking. And if they only choose what’s easy, won’t we just get the same stories over and over again? However, if we as readers, as artists, and as storytellers look at other great works with a critical eye and an active imagination, perhaps there will be more works with such a wide-reaching positive effect.
Like I said, I haven’t read The Chronicles of Harris Burdick yet, but when I do, I definitely want to post some thoughts on it. But until, I want to hear from you. Have you read it yet? What did you think? And better yet, what did it make you think of?
*NOTE: Beneath the Roses, while excellent, is not recommended to Young Adult readers.