Good writers borrow. Great writers steal. -T.S. Eliot *
This is great writing advice, but many people are wary about following it because they misunderstand what the terms “borrowing” and “stealing” mean in this context.
I’m here to clarify.
Borrowing is using something of someone else’s. Stealing is making something your own.
This advice means two things:
1. Don’t be afraid of reusing elements from books you love.
I’ve spoken before about stealing in How to Steal: Know Your Tropes. When you see story elements** in a book you love, don’t think that they’re now off-limits to you forever. Just because you love The Great Gatsby and it’s set in 1920s New York doesn’t mean that you can now never write a story set in 1920s New York. Just because you love I Capture the Castle and it’s written as the protagonist’s journal, doesn’t mean you can never write a novel that takes the form of the protagonist’s journal. Just because Scooby-Doo… you get my point by now, don’t you?
Take note of what you love in other stories.*** Remember those elements–the plot twists, character arcs, tropes, settings, etc.–and then use them to write a story full of things you love.
2. Make the things you steal your own.
Borrowing, in this definition, would be writing about a 1920s bootlegger in love with the girl across the way, trying desperately to impress her with his wealth. You’re stealing from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby… and making it no less F. Scott Fitzgerald’sstory.
This example steals too much from one place. It’s too timid in it’s approach. it’s too afraid to take anything from the story, so it keeps everything the same. Anything that tries to be like Gatsby,butbetter is destined to fail. (Maybe a little like Gatsby himself. Just throw a bigger party, old sport! That’ll do the trick!)
The key to stealing is stealing from multiple things at once until it looks like your very own thing. Stealing is writing a novel about a gang of mystery solving teenagers in 1920s New York, told in the form of a journal the group takes turns writing in. (Because we’re going to add a splash of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants here.)
Stealing is saying: these story elements are mine now and I’m going to use them the way I like, combined with my interests. And you know what? By stealing bits and pieces from all of the things you love, you’re creating something unique and new and wonderful.
So go out there. And steal. Never borrow.
*This is commonly attributed to him at least. The internet tells me he definitely said something close to it.
**Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the words themselves. Never steal somebody else’s words. Basicallyeverything else is up for grabs, though.
***You’re not limited to stealing from books. Steal from movies. From TV shows. From plays. From epic poetry. From that anecdote your neighbor told you last week.
my literal goal in life is just to move into this cute nyc apartment with big windows and leafy plants. i’ll live right across from a cafe bookshop, and i swear i’ll bring my work in there every afternoon and work work work with the scent of coffee in the air and the comfort of books surrounding me. at night i’ll climb on the fire escape and cuddle with my dog, contemplating life and stars and lovers. is that too much to ask for?
I cried because I want my daughters to feel that blazing pride, that affirmation of their boundless capacity- not from their husbands but from their world, from their atmosphere, from inviolable wells of certainty inside themselves. I cried because it’s not fair and I’m so tired, and every woman I know is so tired. I cried because I don’t even know what it feels like to be taken seriously - not fully, not in that whole, unequivocal, confident way that’s native to handshakes between men. I cried because it does things to you to always come second.
I used to spend my 3 a.m.’s alone in my room, afraid and crying and begging for something to happen. For something to change. I used to stay up reading stories and watching the same movies to get lost in another world and forget that I will never be as strong as I’d like to be. To forget that these beautiful places and souls and hearts can only exist in fiction.
But then I met you.
Now, my 3 a.m.’s are spent lightly running down the stairs with headphones in so that I don’t wake my family with my laughter. They’re spent showing each other our favorite songs and talking about what we love and hate about the future and the past and everything in between. My eyes are sleepy, but my heart is wide awake. And although I have to wake up in a little while and I should probably get some rest, I’d much rather be with you, our quiet voices whispering like candles in the dark.
Out of the sunshine, she comes forth
Crossing over Neptune, on Brighton Fourth
One with the breeze, she walks on and on
Wearing sensible shoes,
holding one of those old brick phones,
Hair curly, wild and free like herself
Mile long smile, for me, no one else.
One day I’ll meet
This girl from my dreams,
It may very well be
Not at all like I think,
A sucker for romance,
Slave to fantasy
Dreamer by day
Nope, there’s nothing wrong with me.
In a world so full of people scrambling to achieve practical goals within their logical careers in their lives that make complete and total sense, be a person who reaches no lower than the moon, doing something that makes you want to wake up with the sun and only sleep when you’re dead. Don’t let your dreams become casualties. Don’t let the world be the killer.
i am forever falling in love with the utterly unattainable: people who will never acknowledge my existence, cities that will never embrace me with gentle arms, things and ideas and possibilities that are so ludicrous they may as well be considered fairy tales. upon realizing the avaricious desires of my heart, i can come only to one conclusion: i am eternally doomed to live a life just on the cusp of fantasticality. i am destined to stare out windows and dream incessantly, to have a plethora of wishes that will never be fulfilled. i will evermore have the light of unreachable stars dancing in my eyes and the beats of songs i cannot write pulsing in my fingertips. there is no hope for me; i am but an elusive dreamer, and i am afraid that that is all i will ever be.