Writer’s Ten Commandments #8: You Shall Not Steal

This series is about breaking the Ten Commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #7: You shall not steal.

I can sum up my advice on this subject in four words:

Never plagiarize. Always steal.

In case you’re unclear on the distinction: Plagiarism is taking a whole piece of writing, anything from a sentence to an entire book, written by another and passing it off as your own.

Stealing is taking a technique, a metaphor, an idea, a setting, a characteristic, or an element of any sort that you like in someone else’s work and reshaping it to fit your own work.

Here are a couple of quotations to help explain what I mean:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”
—Jim Jarmusch

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
— T.S. Eliot

So many artists in various media have talked about this, someone has put together a whole page of quotations on the subject, which is where I got these two. Also, to make my composer husband happy, here’s one I can’t authenticate:

Bad composers plagiarize. Good composers steal, then hide their theft. —Igor Stravinsky

Ultimately, our work (like this blog post) is nothing more than a collage of everything we’ve ever read, sensed, or experienced. The trick is to put the pieces together in a way that is both artistic and wholly your own.

Do you like the way Author A conveys character emotion with a gesture? Steal it! Not that exact gesture, but find an expressive one of your own. Like Author B’s descriptions? Steal them! Again, not the exact words, but let his approach inspire your own.

This is the fundamental reason I take every opportunity to exhort my fellow writers to steep themselves in the classics. If you’re going to be stealing—and you are—you should make sure you’re stealing from the best. (If you’re really uncomfortable with stealing, you could call it borrowing—but honestly, are you ever going to give the stuff back?)

Here are some of my favorite writers and a few of the things I’ve stolen, or tried to steal, from them:

  • Jane Austen: Witty dialogue, satirical comment on human nature, keen moral sense
  • Charles Dickens: Fantastic characters, character description
  • L. M. Montgomery: Description of nature
  • Emily and Charlotte Brontë: Eerie atmosphere, over-the-top emotion
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Depth of theme, eternal significance of story
  • T. S. Eliot: Mellifluous language
  • Dorothy L. Sayers: Richness of allusion
  • C. S. Lewis: Clarity of style
  • E. M. Forster: Plight of the individual entrapped by society; witty narration
  • Anthony Trollope: Minute examination of character motivation
  • Margery Allingham: Incisive characterization
  • Leo Tolstoy: Depth of understanding of human nature
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky: Fearless exploration of sin and redemption
  • William Shakespeare: Absolute mastery of language, deep insight into just about everything
  • New King James Version Bible: Beautiful (and understandable) language, Ultimate Truth

Go forth and read, absorb, steal freely, and create something beautiful that is all your own.

What writers do you consider worth stealing from, and what would you steal?

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