We get it. We’ve all heard the quote. Amateurs borrow; professionals steal. It’s been attributed to artists as varied as Bing Crosby and T. S. Eliot, and it celebrates the deft theft that’s often at the heart of any creative process. So for this End Table, we ask our writers to reflect on acts of artistic larceny both large and small. Who do you consciously (or unconsciously) steal from?
Or maybe you’re a mere borrower. Consider the piece that appears in this issue. You don’t have to pen a full confession, but what specific elements of your poem/story/ essay can you trace to someone else’s work? It might be something you siphoned off from a casual conversation, an overheard phrase from your eavesdropping, or some unrelated song, film, book, cereal box, etc., that you noticed, and then just had to have for yourself. Go ahead. Fess up.
I know there is a source (or sources) for the sound patterns and rhythms in this piece, but right now I have no idea what that (or those) might be. It’s a bit like hearing a piece of music or even a scrap of melody, recognizing it, but then being unable to identify the specific source or even the source of your familiarity with it. That makes me wonder if much of the “stealing” that goes on in poetry may, in fact, be this kind of “forgetting.” Age may have something to do with it too.
If, indeed, amateurs borrow and professionals steal, the act is less significant than the end result. The process in either case is similar and in neither can the amateur or the professional return, in nevertact, what has been lifted. Once appropriated, that which is appropriated is changed—-identifiable perhaps, perhaps not, certainly never the same. But the amateur’s work is often transitory, whereas the professional’s tends to sustain.
There is third category, however: artists. In the same way all Cognac is brandy but not all brandy is Cognac, all artists are professionals but not all professionals are artists, and where the professional’s work sustains, the artist’s is perpetual. Artists beg, borrow and steal but their originality and creative drive doesn’t simply alter the plundered source, it transforms the way we view and think about the world.
In the 1960s, Orson Welles made a black and white film called Chimes at Midnight. It follows Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff and the rowdy companionship and tragic split of Falstaff and Prince Hal. Likewise, it explores Hal’s parallel, but distant, relationship with the king, his father. Welles takes freely and unapologetically from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The characters and their language belong to Shakespeare, but the interpretation comes straight from Welles. Using the medium of film, he creates something magical, self–contained and truly original. It adds transformative layers to the genius of Shakespeare and allows us an opportunity to experience something both universal and highly personal.
So, is borrowing or stealing ethical? Or does the end justify the means? Shakespeare stole and borrowed from any number of sources. Does that diminish his work? Ever since the primal prime–movers of each completely original idea, others have borrowed, stolen, followed, changed, improvised, and sometimes created something startling and revolutionary from them. Given there is nothing new under the sun, I suppose finally the best we can do is be true to our own work, fair to the sources we adapt, and hope, passionately, the lawyers don’t get involved.
Regarding Drought, I wanted to write something about climate change, but the scope and complexity of the science is too huge and too daunting. It lacks the human element—-despite the likely, devastating impact on humans. I read a newspaper article about two elderly rancher brothers who would probably lose their ranch because of drought. In the article, the 72–year–old says he guessed their way of life could be over within a decade. That really hit home and still does. Had it been uttered by a 20–year–old it would have carried less weight. In a very general sense, the statement brings to mind the struggle between the illusion of permanency and the inexorability of change; but within the context of these brothers’ lives, it encompasses profound personal loss and the shrinking and vanishing of a family’s entire culture—-not simply livelihood, but all the connections and memories that go with it. Those are the themes I was striving for, but the impetus came from the article. Having said that, I think it’s important we all do what we can to keep our lovely planet safe and hospitable. If change is inexorable, it should also be incremental.
The title of my poem, Offer It Up for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, is a direct quote from my mother. My siblings, all 16 of them, and I heard this phrase probably every day of our childhoods, growing up in a small, rural Iowa farming community. Our household was filled with laughter and hard work and a commitment to the Catholic faith through catechism, Holy Days, religious icons and prayers; a faith that served my mother and she wished to pass on to us. But ailments from so many children (think of your own bug bites and skinned knees and multiply that by 17) were rarely cause for doctor visits but were always met with her call to action: “Offer it up for the poor souls in Purgatory.” From minor injuries to sibling squabbles, who better to help with our own suffering than those poor departed who were waiting to enter the kingdom of heaven? Stealing from my mother is not a theft I hide. I take her words here in an attempt to convey what it means to suffer and be penitent in the ordinary routine of a life. I suppose in a way, it’s also about the possibility of forgiveness, not only the simple, personal act but also the greater, more complicated ones we may shy away from.
During my husband’s first of several deployments I came across this poem by W.S. Merwin, and it has influenced everything I’ve written about our experiences since:
When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again
I don’t think any American writing in the twenty–first century can describe the deserts of the Middle East without acknowledging T. E. Lawrence and Paul Bowles. I’d like to cite Arab writers, too—-Kanafani, Darwish, Adunis—-though they influenced me less, probably because I only read them in English. And of course I always steal from Cormac McCarthy, who himself probably stole from Faulkner, who stole from Anderson, who stole from Conrad, who stole from Melville, and so on.
We steal when we take without attribution. We borrow when we indicate our source(s). My three poems in this issue depend on borrowing: the first two obviously—-we all know about Jack and Jill, Hansel and Gretel—-the third poem less so. Luckily for me, traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes tend to be public domain. However, if the heirs of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm still held copyright to the tales, their attorney would probably be threatening me with a lawsuit for unauthorized use of their characters.
The opening line of each stanza of my poem “Jack and Jill” is lifted verbatim from the nursery rhyme—-without attribution. But the nursery rhyme is common knowledge. No need for attribution. Which makes this an act of borrowing.
The phrase “hard by a great forest” begins the Grimm brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.” Many people don’t know this. I didn’t until I happened upon it and decided to use it, again without attribution, in “Early One Morning.” But the third line of the second stanza, with support from surrounding lines, clearly implies attribution—-so I see this also as an instance of borrowing.
When I was no more than midway through the first draft of “Children of Water, I realized I wanted the narrator–protagonist to be the unsuspecting author as well as the victim of his fate. I had in mind something like the world of Greek tragedy, specifically that of Sophocles’ first Oedipus play. I realize the poem may reflect this minimally if at all. That said, I’m not so sure this is even a case of borrowing. Still, had I not had the fateful world of tragedy in mind, the poem might have been different in ways I now can’t imagine.
If social media is the new gossip, then Facebook is the whispered conversation that you don’t fully feel comfortable borrowing from, but still do. The initial spark for my story came from a friend’s status wherein she bemoaned the difficulty in finding public bathrooms while pregnant. I happened to be having a drink at a fancy hotel bar in New York at the time, a hotel whose public facilities were down a long flight of stairs. This glanced–upon Facebook status mingled with my current location gave birth to the idea for my story. And yes, I’ve told my friend that she was the inspiration.
I’m adverse to using words like steal when referring to what for me amounts to the communal input on this invisible collective work of art, a colossal skyscraping block of marble that when finished will represent humanity in totality and that all artists are constantly chipping away at and that so far maybe we’ve only even come about as close to probably revealing a toenail of and which we have to stand on each others shoulders ladderlike in order to even reach the top. My story, “I Found Your Body,” wouldn’t even exist if not for the other Latin American magical realists that came before me. Stylewise, I’m guilty of being affected by whatever I’ve most recently read. Even now as I write this I can’t help feel like some cheap knock–off David Foster Wallace has possessed my fingertips, most likely due to a recent read–through of his short, Good Old Neon. I guess I wonder if we might be patched together of all our lives’ influences like a bunch of Frankenstein’s monsters. My hope is that we all have some unique essential color to us so that even when we deliberately try to imitate someone, the best we could ever even produce is whatever our color mixed with theirs would make. A look at my book log tells me I read George Saunders’ Tenth of December shortly before starting, I Found Your Body, and yeah, okay, I guess that makes a little sense at least to me but actually I think I’ve taken more from his first compilation, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, which captivated me with its mundane treatment of the bizarre, something I think I’m always aiming for.
I’m sure I steal/borrow a lot more than comes to mind, since it’s inevitable that writers pick up ideas/words/images from things we’ve read/seen/heard, whether it be through books, music, or TV/film. I’m sure I’ve been exposed to some variation of the three poems I wrote in some other form, though I can’t think up a specific instance. But more generally, I definitely borrow from surrealism in copious amounts, otherwise I don’t know where I would’ve come up with the idea of a guy who lives in an apartment where everything is composed of different types of animals, a washing machine where you can toss in just about anything (though perhaps it’s like a giant chest from a vaudeville act), or a man who plays his own interrogator ‘til forced to spill the beans. Maybe the answers staring me in the face, and I just don’t want to admit that I’m not as original as I thought;)
Before I write, I read. I read my favorite poems or poems I’ve never read before mainly to gain instantaneous access into that rhythmic space, where I remember, once again, the quintessential sound particular to poetry. From there I let my subject matter mimic that sound I hear—-does this sound like a poem? I ask myself.
When I wrote “Dream–Tending” I was taking a course with the same name. Each morning I’d come to class, sit on the floor, and listen to other people’s dreams, before spending the rest of the time analyzing them. In this case, I stole dialog from my classmates and inserted them into the poem. Then one day a professional dream–tender visited and recited her own poetry—-she also inspired me to write about this metaphysical space. “An Attempt at Solace” would not be what it is without Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stoke of Insight. I also read any poems I had at hand dealing with a similar subject matter, noticing the amazing parts, even if that was a surprising word or line break, and seeing how that choice could translate into my work. I am certainly not afraid to say that other people’s voices are an inextricable part of my writing—-to hone any craft, we must turn to those we admire.