Imitating greatness

The writer’s calling is a noble one. It’s a very fine thing that we do in the world–creating stories and putting them out there. But it’s all based on thievery.

If your goal is to be utterly original, you are not really in the club. The club might not be what yougodfather think, by the way. That cliquish, exalted club of multi-published authors is actually comprised of a rather a shop-worn crew sitting in seen-better-day leather chairs, given to doodling on napkins and rehashing old plot lines of dog-eared books and obscure movies. They are brilliant, to be sure. But they’re not cutting edge types. And if you can talk story with them, you’re already in the club.

But be warned. They’re thieves. They steal plots, characters, motivations, supporting casts, milieu and . . . well, whatever inspires them.

I’ve been thinking lately about imitation because of a terrific talk given by Steven Barnes, Writing the Thriller, available as a PDF or MP3. One of the things he said was: “All authors steal from the best. All imitate the masters. Do not try to reinvent the wheel. Steal from everyone.” I had always believed this, but I hadn’t before that moment heard anyone say it so forcefully.

It got me to thinking that we may be slightly ashamed to copy the good stuff. Let’s not be!

Do writers imitate because there are so few ideas? No. I don’t believe there are only 31 stories in the world, or eleven, or whatever number. Even if there are only a few stories (and endless variations) that’s not why writers copy others.

life of piWriters copy others because they realize that greatness comes only once in a while and to the few. They admire the sublime and riveting, and know that we are all interns in life and in art. So they aren’t hesitant to grab onto inspiration from books and  films. Writers read a lot and watch a lot of films, and they know great ones when they see them. Films like The Godfather, North by Northwest, Chinatown. Books like The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, Cloud Atlas.

The point is not that we can’t be original. Of course we can. All the imitated things will be transformed by the passage through your own brain. But we aren’t wasting time trying to create new principles of story telling. We aren’t demanding that our writing come from some isolated font of creativity within us, but one connected and informed by cultural heritage and great stories.

Let’s be thankful for our fellow authors and screenwriters who show us the higher levels. Embrace lovely bonesthose moment of awe and inspiration. Pay attention when you feel pierced to the heart, amazed or uplifted. The dramatic moments in a story that you can’t forget are particularly speaking to you. Use them. Run them through your own experience. They can become a platform for you to jump higher than you ever have before.

It’s simple. And it’s totally OK. In fact, it’s in the tradition; a great practice of the club, even if largely unstated.

We are, as Barnes said, learning from the masters.

Another reason this has been on my mind lately is that I was so struck by one of the examples from a film mentioned by Steve in The Thriller talk that I used it at a jumping off point for my next story!

One Response

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Kay. I first heard this “Steal from the best” idea from fellow Canadian author, Brian Doyle. He’s very proud to have stolen from Dickens, Shakespeare, and I believe Dylan Thomas, too. His books are great fun to read on their own, but recognizing his take on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in [one of his books; I forget which one], for example, adds a whole other level of enjoyment.

    And it wasn’t till after my four Marie-Claire novels about a girl living in Montreal during the smallpox epidemic of 1885 had been published that it occurred to me that I’d learned a lot from Laura Ingalls Wilder (stolen?) about how to write historical fiction for young readers.

    I’m a recent reader of your blogs but have found myself dipping back often to some of your earlier posts. Keep your great tips and encouragement coming!

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