Homage or Something Else? The Trick Is Not Minding

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What do the films Lawrence of Arabia, All the President’s Men and Prometheus have in common? On the face of it, nothing. If you haven’t seen them, you’d certainly never figure it out. But in all of them, there is a relatively short scene involving the following punchline: “The trick is not minding.”

In Lawrence of Arabia, it is said by TE Lawrence, a real-life eccentric, war hero and author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and shows him as someone witty and intriguing but also desperate to inspire awe and respect in those around him.

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Lawrence is with Hartley in a basement with a high window out to the street, waiting for Potter to bring him a newspaper.

Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, this is a nasty, dark, little room.
Hartley: That’s right.
Lawrence: We are not happy in it.
Hartley: I am. It’s better than a nasty, dark, little trench.
Lawrence: Then you’re a big noble fellow.
Hartley: That’s right.

Potter arrives.

Lawrence: Ah, here is William Potter with my newspaper.
Potter: Here you are, tosh.
Lawrence: Thanks. Would you care for one of Corporal Hartley’s cigarettes?
Potter: Ta.

Potter helps himself to a cigarette.

Hartley: Is it there?
Lawrence: Of course. Headlines. But I’ll bet it isn’t mentioned in The Times. “Bedouin tribes attack Turkish stronghold.” And I’ll bet that no one in this whole headquarters even knows it happened. Or would care if it did. (To Potter) Allow me to ignite your cigarette.
Potter: Sure.

Lawrence lights Potter’s cigarette with a match. A messenger comes in.

Messenger: Mr Lawrence?
Lawrence: Yes?
Messenger: Flimsy, sir.
Lawrence: Thank you.

Lawrence extinguishes the match he used to light Potter’s cigarette between his bare fingers with a show of flair.

Hartley: You do that once too often. It’s only flesh and blood.
Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, you are a philosopher.
Potter: And you’re barmy.

Lawrence reads the note the messenger has brought and Potter decides to try Lawrence’s trick of extinguishing a match with his fingers.

Potter: Ooohh, it damn well hurts!
Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Potter: Well, what’s the trick then?
Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

*****

The punchline appears again in All the President’s Men when Bob Woodward discusses Gordon Liddy, eventually discovered to be a key figure in the Watergate scandal. Woodward and Liddy are also real people and Liddy was renowned for telling this story himself. It seems to be used here as evidence of Liddy’s sociopathic personality.

*****

Woodward has arranged to meet with Deep Throat, a high level but extremely confidential source, in a car park in the middle of the night.

Deep Throat: I saw the flag signal. What’s up?
Woodward: Nothing, that’s the problem. The story’s gone underground.
Deep Throat: You thought I’d help out on specifics? I’ll confirm what you get, try to keep you on the right track, but that’s all. Are you guys really working? How much?
Woodward: I don’t know, maybe sixteen, eighteen hours a day. We’ve got sources at Justice, the FBI, but it’s still drying up.
Deep Throat: Then there must be something, mustn’t there. Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.
Woodward: If you don’t like them, why won’t you be more concrete with me?
Deep Throat: Because the press stinks too. History on the run, that’s all you’re interested in. You come up with anything?
Woodward: John Mitchell resigned as head of CREEP to spend more time with his family. That doesn’t exactly have the ring of truth. Howard Hunt’s been found. There was talk that his lawyer had $25,000 in cash in a paper bag.
Deep Throat: Follow the money. Always follows the money.
Woodward: To where?
Deep Throat: Go on.
Woodward: This man, Gordon Liddy. He’s going to be tried along with Hunt and the five burglars. We know he knows a lot, we just don’t know what.
Deep Throat: You changed cabs? You’re sure no one followed you?
Woodward: I did everything you said but it all seemed…
Deep Throat: Melodramatic? Things are past that… Remember, these are men with switchblade mentalities who run the world as if it were Dodge City.
Woodward: What’s the whole thing about, do you know?
Deep Throat: What I know, you’ll have to find out on your own.
Woodward: Liddy, you think there’s a chance he’ll talk?
Deep Throat: Talk? Once, at a gathering, he put his hand over a candle. And he kept it there. He kept it right in the flame until his flesh was seared. A woman who was watching asked, “What’s the trick?” And he replied, “The trick is not minding.”

*****

The reference also appears in Prometheus because one of the main characters is obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia. David, a robot designed to look like a human, is caretaking on the Prometheus, a scientific exploratory vessel, while the rest of the crew are kept in stasis during the nearly two-and-a half year journey to the planet they are heading to. He has spent this time deconstructing a huge number of ancient languages to their roots to enable him to communicate with whoever or whatever the crew will find when they arrive at their destination.

In his spare time, he watches Lawrence of Arabia and particularly the famous scene described above while dyeing the roots of his hair to match the blond of the actor portraying Lawrence in the film. He styles his hair in exactly the same way. And he repeats the famous words – “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” – over and over, seeming to test them for different nuances.

In Prometheus, it is used to demonstrate David’s obsessive personality. It is also interesting in the context of the fact that he is a robot searching for his identity, particularly since all he seems to be doing is adopting someone else’s identity.

*****

So… homage, parody or something else (plagiarism)? The basic test is that homage cites its source, parody mocks its source and plagiarism denies there ever was a source. Lawrence of Arabia and All the President’s Men are depictions of real people and there’s no telling where TE Lawrence and Gordon Liddy came across their party trick. Prometheus is clearly an homage and Ridley Scott, the director, has acknowledged as much, saying it was a personal tribute to one of his favourite films.

If you’re ever in a position to have an homage paid to or a parody made of your work, it probably means you’ve already achieved something great. (So the trick is not minding, although why would you?) But plagiarism? That’s something else again. And the trick is no mercy.

How Many Different Types of Writer Have You Been? How Many Will You Be?

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Last week, I posted a list of forty-four types of writing jobs and reading through them made me realise how many different types of writer I’ve been. I’ve been paid to write:

*Advertisements (copywriter)
*Case studies and marketing materials (corporate writer)
*CVs (CV writer)
*Articles for journals (essayist)
*Someone else’s book (ghostwriter)
*Non-fiction books (non-fiction writer)
*Novels (novelist)
*Proposals (proposal writer)
*Scripts (screenwriter)
*Speeches (speechwriter)
*Website text (web content writer)

I’ve also been an unpaid:

*Blogger
*Critic
*Poet

The best paid writing job I’ve ever had was also the worst writing job I’ve ever had: being a corporate writer. There were multiple reasons including an expectation from the people I was writing for that I would be happy to lie in the copy I was writing (I wasn’t) and also a business model that relied heavily on exploiting workers in third world countries (something I didn’t find out until I was working there).

The second best paid writing job I’ve ever had was much more enjoyable: being a ghostwriter. There were multiple reasons for that including an employer who treated me well because he recognised I was going to make him look like a much better writer than he was and who gave serious, respectful consideration to areas we disagreed over. Plus there was a published book at the end of it. (What writer doesn’t love that?!)

The longest writing job I’ve ever had I enjoyed to start with but enjoyed less towards the end: being a proposal writer. I was given a lot of autonomy and for the first few years, there was plenty of variety and encouragement. But after a few years, the same proposals rolled around again and it became clear that there was no path for advancement.

The proudest moments in writing I’ve ever had were all unpaid (at least to start with): publishing each of my books and two articles posted on LinkedIn that have each had nearly 10,000 views.

And – perhaps unsurprisingly – the most enjoyable of all the writing I do is the writing I choose to do: my novels and my blog.

So how many different types of writer have you been? And how many will you be?

What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

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Hi, all. This is another chapter for my writing book for children. Any feedback is much appreciated.

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Saying you want to be a writer is a bit like saying you want to be an athlete. There are lots of different kinds of sports. And there are lots of different kinds of writing. Most kids start out by writing fiction (such as stories about aliens or adventures or animals) and non-fiction (such as essays about what you did over the summer). But by the time you’re all grown up, you’ll realise that there are a lot more – sometimes very specific – options for the kind of writer you might want to be.

Here are a few that you will have heard of and maybe a few that you’ve never even thought about. Continue reading

Does Your Book Pass the Bechdel Test? Does It Need To?

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The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 in – perhaps unusually – the comic strip of Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist and 2014 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”. In it, two women discuss going to the movies and one of them outlines her requirements for seeing any of the films being shown. They have to meet three criteria:

*The movie has at least two female characters.
*The two female characters talk to each other.
*The conversation is about anything other than a man.

Bechdel credits the idea to her friend Liz Wallace, who was in turn apparently inspired by some of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Twenty-five years later, the Bechdel test gained mainstream recognition (maybe a sign of the times). Continue reading

Book Review: The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

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Oh, dear. My year of reading books by Australian female writers isn’t improving.

Deb, Trina, Eden and Joni have been friends since the start of high school and they’ve managed to stay friends through careers, husbands and kids. Once a year, they get together for a few days away from their families. This year, they have decided to write anonymous letters to reveal their deepest and darkest secrets without having to be judged. Except when the letters are finished, there are five. And the fifth letter is a doozy. One of the women harbours a murderous grudge against one of the other women. Continue reading