“Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” This quote is attributed to T.S. Eliot, though has had so many different iterations, I’m not confident saying it even originated with him. Below, a quote attributed to Picasso, stolen by Banksy.
How do the works of others inspire our own work? This is a question that comes into play for many artists. Whether it’s tracing back a piece of inspiration to its source, or openly collaborating with others.
Where do we draw the line between borrowing and stealing? And for that matter, how far back are we obligated to trace back a theme, trope, character, or motif to its source? Some argue that there are only a handful of stories that really exist, and that all stories from Harry Potter to the Desperate Housewives to the biblical parables are all just recreations of a few, essential, fundamental stories.
Referring back to known parables or stories, I believe, can greatly enhance your writing. It adds an entire layer of dimension without you as the writer having to do the footwork. There are cultural associations and assumptions that go hand in hand with known tales that can work with, or in contrast, to what you are aiming to do.
I know that currently in my own writing, I am ripping apart a piece I began a few months ago and fleshing it out. The story began as a “seed scene” as I like to think of it, and I am working on seeing where it wants to go from there. In my initial moment of inspiration, riding the Green line in Boston, I jotted down this scene in my Field Notes notebook (very handy by the way, find them here). As I wrote down the scene, I named the character Jonah, I’m not sure why exactly, I just went with my gut and flew from there.
In re-examining the scene and brainstorming, I was taken aback by how perfectly I could wind some Jonah in the belly of the whale into my story in a slight, but purposeful way. I would use this parable to do some of the heavy lifting for me. I hope to share that piece with you all in a few weeks’ time, and you can let me know if the thievery was worth it!
In the name of collaboration in all forms, find one of my favorite musical mashups: “Little Wrecking Ball“