“Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” T. S. Eliot
A couple of recent articles by writers have made me think about the process of writing and the question of theft in writing. I’m often asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I’m pretty sure every writer gets asked this question at some point in time.
My imagination is pretty vivid, I would usually respond. So when I hear a story, or a piece of news, or someone relates an incident that has happened to them, I store it away – to perhaps use one day. My imagination will usually do the rest, amplify it, alter it, assign it to a character, incorporate it into a story line, perhaps even make it the whole crux of a plot. As William S Burroughs said, “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?”
I’m not sure anyone would really call it theft or stealing – unless you ‘borrow’ whole sentences or paragraphs, and that’s a whole different blog! What makes stories relevant, individual and original is how the source of inspiration is used and manipulated by writers. If a number of writers are asked to use the same news item as the inspiration for a story, you can be assured that it will result in several very different stories. I ran a creative writing workshop last week where I gave fifteen students the same opening sentence. By the end of the session, each of the students had taken that sentence and continued it into a whole variety of stories ranging from ghost stories, adventure, romance, fantasy and science fiction. In Jean-Luc Godard’s words: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
In a recent essay describing his creative process, Ian Fleming, said that many of the scenes in his books are drawn from real incidents that he “dolled up, attached a hero, villain and heroine to, and there was the book.”
He may have over-simplified it, but perhaps not – he used to write the first draft of a story in six weeks, which is pretty astounding. Here’s a link to the rest of his essay. It’s an interesting read. http://www.mi6-hq.com/sections/articles/literary-ian-fleming-how-to-write-a-thriller?t&s&id=03763
My writing process has come under pressure these past few months, and my motivation and staying-power is not quite what it used to be. I’ve tried working in different places and at different times, but I have felt stuck. October is the month that that will all change. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve told myself. Fleming had a tropical island hideaway where he wrote, uninterrupted, 2000 words a day. I may not be in the fortunate position to be able to fly away to Jamaica and work four solid hours a day so that at the end of just six weeks I could have a first draft of 60,000 words under my belt, but I’m damned well going to try and get the current work in progress from draft to manuscript.
And yes, my story was partly inspired by something I read in the newspaper, partly by other stories read when I was much younger, and by simply observing what modern day teenagers get up to when they’re up to no good...