By Kathy Flann,
Baltimore, MD, USA

TS Eliot once famously said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” As the evenings lengthen and vacations commence, we are likely to read more books. Each book gives us the exciting opportunity to steal from our fellow writers. Be greedy, I say! Take, take, take.

When I offer this advice to students at the college where I teach, there is an audible gasp. Steal? On purpose? They have spent years listening to guidance about how to
Kathy Flann
avoid plagiarism. Even inadvertent plagiarism, they understand, is a serious ethical offense. It’s heartening that they have grasped so deeply the principals behind the honor code, as those ideals are crucial to the academic pursuits that occupy most of the students’ time. It’s also reassuring that my students are conscientious and honorable human beings, trying to do the right things.

However, when it comes to creative work, we can apply the “right things” a little differently. We can see the influence of Shakespeare, for example, on everyone from Charles Dickens to Toni Morrison. Think of the titles that are borrowed from lines of his work: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and so forth.

Influences? The students breathe a sigh of relief. Influences are okay. Influences do not make them want to breathe into a paper bag. The word influence suggests skirting the edges of someone else’s backyard– loitering, if you will – rather than trespassing (and then possibly making off with the grill and the lawnmower).

But writers do trespass. Writers learn their craft from other writers in very specific ways. When I was a graduate student in an MFA program, my peers and I sometimes opened blank documents and typed published stories we admired, word for word. It helped us to “feel” the letters, the language, the development of the characters, the shape of the plot. This typing practice was a tangible version of what we were already doing when we sat down to read books. We were hungry to understand how stories worked and why they had the effects that they did. How could an imaginary person feel so real? How could a plot feel so satisfying? What did the writer do? And could we do it, too?

We obviously didn’t append our own names to these stories and send them out for publication. Now that would be theft with a capital TH. It was simply a learning exercise. What better way to grasp how to create an inciting incident, for example, than to type the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa awoke from anxious dreams, he discovered that during the night he had been transformed into a monstrous bug.” If the job of the first sentence is to make you want to read the second, Kafka’s opener is a real over-achiever. Is Gregor Samsa really a bug? How on earth did it happen? What’s he going to do about it? And why is the voice so matter-of-fact about something that should, rightfully, be fairly upsetting? 

The Metamorphosis - First Edition

Okay, my students concede, maybe it’s all right to steal techniques from other writers. But you most certainly should not steal their ideas. That would be crossing the line, dipping a toe into the neighbor’s backyard pool.

“Well….” I say. “Are you sure?” The movie Clueless is a re-telling of Jane Austen’s Emma. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. And Huxley’s Brave New World borrows more from Shakespeare than the title – it’s a re-boot of The Tempest. The hit Broadway musical Wicked is, of course, an adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was a re-conception of The Wizard of Oz. The list goes on.

Here’s another way to think about the proprietary aspect of ideas:  If I give everyone in my class a prompt such as Write about a magician whose trick goes terribly wrong at a child’s birthday party, will everyone in the class write exactly the same story? Probably some students will write from the perspective of the magician, while others will write from the perspective of the child having the party. Someone will undoubtedly write from the perspective of the horrified parent who hired the magician and someone else will write from the perspective of the family dog. In some stories, the botched trick will involve inadvertent violence toward a bunny or a budgie. In others, the magician will – whoops – destroy an imposing dad’s Rolex or an intricate birthday cake in the shape of the child’s face.

The point is that there are many qualities that make a story unique, and these may or may not include the underlying concept. We can attribute the initial vampire narrative to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but there have been scores of subsequent vampire stories, some of which may be more vivid or striking than the original. Other than trying to publish a verbatim re-typing of someone else’s work, there are few ways for writers to transgress. So when you read something you love, don’t just get excited. Get inspired. Get greedy. Think, “Can I do that? What’s my version of that?”

This leaves students wondering: “What makes my work original, then?”

That’s an easy one: “You do.”

Original is something that we are. It’s not something that we do or control. Our work is likely to be the product of our unique experiences and backgrounds and personalities. Reading actively (i.e. stealing) helps us with what we can control -- things like pacing, plot, character development, language – and yes, even ideas.

So go ahead. Hop the fence. The water is fine.


Kathy Flann    


Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.

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