We once worked with a real estate agent who said to us, “buyers are liars.” She explained that we’ll tell her we absolutely need to have a two-story front porch, a finished basement, and a separate laundry room in our next house when in fact, the home we’ll end up purchasing will have none of those things. I like to tell my students that writers are liars and we’re thieves. We have to be. If I don’t feel free to make things up, to add in a few details that may not have truly been present, to embellish or dwell, well then, I can’t write freely.
And we all steal. Admit it.
All art is derivative. I don’t think anyone will argue that. That’s not to say that some art isn’t completely unique and original. But the artist, unless she has spent her whole life in a cave, has read a book or been to a museum or walked by some street art. Even those passing moments have influence. An image can stick in our brains though we may not be consciously aware it’s there…until it appears in a different form in our work.
Isn’t Stealing Bad?
Yes, stealing is bad if you’re slipping that candy bar in your pocket without paying for it. But if you’re walking down the street and you happen to overhear a strange conversation from the two people walking in front of you and some of that dialogue magically appears in a story you’re working on, well, no, that’s not stealing.
That’s called Paying Attention.
Writers know you have to pay close attention to the everyday details and discussions taking place around you. It’s all fodder for your stories and essays. Even if you consider yourself someone who only writes for work, you should still be paying attention. An off-the-cuff conversation in the hall or before a Zoom meeting starts can plant an idea in your head. When your colleague says he’s feeling like the Energizer Bunny because he’s running from meeting to meeting, boom! That’s a great image you can use in your next employee newsletter.
To make thievery even easier for you, here are a few ideas:
1. Pay attention and write it down. You may think, oh, I’ll never forget that phrase. You will. Especially if you’re over 40. I once heard the writer Stuart Dybeck describe how he always kept notecards in his back pocket so he could write down what he heard on the street.
2. Cite your sources! Yes, you get to use the thoughts and output of other thinkers, but you do need to credit them. In today’s social media world, one of my favorite joys is quoting someone else, putting my own spin on it, and then friending them on LinkedIn or Instagram.
3. If you see or hear something worthwhile, let it marinate for a bit. When it finally makes an appearance in your own work, you’ll see that it has completely transformed into something that is uniquely yours.
4. Sign up for interesting newsletters and follow creative thinkers, weird folks, scientists, and writers.
Where do you steal from? Tell us who you’re following for great conversation and new ideas.