“Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.”
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
“I get a lot of big ideas, and occasionally I even come up with one myself.”
I’m not recommending plagiarism. Before we go any farther, know that. So how can we reconcile the above sentiments by really cool writers with our modern fear and loathing of plagiarism? (By the way, if you think that the above quotes are the only ones relating to a glorification of creative theft, you’re wrong; there are thousands—I just picked some of the more famous ones.) I think that we can reconcile the two concepts by saying that there are acceptable ways of copying the work of others.
Did I just say that? Yes.
Imitation is one of the best ways to learn craft that I know of, and I heartily recommend it (forgetting for a moment that Eliot disapproves of it). As another famous (if older) writer, Oliver Goldsmith, has said, “People seldom improve when they have no model but themselves to copy after.” We want to succeed. We succeed by learning. We learn by imitation.
Now, when I say let’s copy the work of others, I’m not talking about their exact words, passing off theirs as our own. I’m talking about a tried-and-true method of learning craft that many famous writers have done for years. Literally copying stories you love. Yes. Type them up. Absorb them into your skulls. Separate the paragraphs and sentences and take notes on what the hell your favorite writers are doing and where they are doing it. Basically, dissect the story. (Does that mean kill it? It depends.)
Words are nothing. Words are cheap. Words are to writers as paint is to painters—the work is not about the tool itself, it’s about the technique behind it. So when we copy other writers that we admire, we’re not looking to copy their words—any lazy college freshman can do that—we’re looking to copy their structure and voice.
When we look at a story’s structure, we’re pulling back the curtain, so to speak, and finding what’s causing the metaphorical Wizard to appear. (But doesn’t that mean we’re killing it? It depends! I’ll tell you later!) When we look at structure, we’re also examining a story’s parts closely to see when certain elements need to appear, how they have to operate, and, maybe more tellingly, what elements don’t need to be in the story. What better way to learn about crafting a well-told tale than to learn from your favorite writer?
Another benefit to copying a story and breaking it down is that we get an insight into voice. Let’s be honest, a lot of the charm of stories lies in the narrative voice, and voice is one of the hardest things to get right. (Here’s a quick for-instance: does your methhead trailer park dweller of a character know the word “salubrious”? If not, why the hell are you using the word “salubrious” in your story? And will someone please tell me what “salubrious” means?)
Now, voice is not something that can be simply copied. If you’re writing a satirical piece, I can see the point, but if you’re trying to write a piece that’s truly your own, you’re going to have to change it. I love Ernest Hemingway’s writing style. I love the cut-the-crap mentality and the sparseness and the way he uses ands instead of commas and the way that that speeds up the sentences and makes you all breathless and makes you keep reading in spite of yourself… but I don’t want to write like him. I use far too many commas, first of all, and I enjoy the added rhythm that a well-placed comma can give to a sentence. I also feel that I can’t out-Hemingway Hemingway, so why try?
You have to make the voice your own by adding your own ideas to it—but you don’t truly know what goes into a voice until you have learned the voice deeply and thought about what you would change and keep about a certain style. If we truly find our own writing voices, I believe we find them by synthesis.
Now, to get to whether or not we are killing a story by dissecting it and pulling the curtain away to expose the Wizard… I don’t think we are.
A young writer friend of mine (who’s entering an MFA program in the fall at a very good school) told me that he hates theory because it takes away from the “magic” of reading a work and being “carried away” by it. To him, and you, I would respond—do you want to be a writer or do you want to be a reader? Of course, to be writers we have to be readers, but what I’m talking about is a mentality. Are we there to be entertained or are we there to entertain?
Let’s stick with the metaphor of magic, or, more properly, illusion. Say you’re a Vegas magician and this other Vegas magician has an amazing trick that’s pulling in the crowds every night. So you go to see him. And let’s say that this other Vegas magician has a great presence on the stage—he really captivates the audience and keeps them enthralled, you included. But does that mean that you, as a fellow magician—errm, illusionist—are not also watching to see how he pulls off his trick? Are you not analyzing the crap out of his performance and seeing what could work for you and what couldn’t work? Just because we love being entertained does not also mean that we aren’t trying to learn everything possible from what is entertaining us. It’s part of being a professional, or a would-be professional.
Let me tell you something sad now. If we are going to be writers, there are certain things we can never experience again. We will never again be able to look at a book we loved as fourth graders and love it in the same way we did back then. This is a blessing and a curse, because, though we might never be enraptured by books in that simple-minded way again (though it might not be impossible if the book is good enough), we gain the ability to actually see what’s going on behind the curtain. We learn how to replicate it, synthesize it, make it our own. We learn how to enthrall others, rather than simply be enthralled.
So yes, I advocate theft. I advocate that you do it immediately.