Writing Challenge, Day 28: Stealing Inspiration

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 28: When you write, to what degree do real-life experiences serve as inspiration?

So, my favorite writing teacher ever taught our English class an important lesson on the first very day. She said, to a room of eager, innocent young faces:

“Boys and girls, if you want to be a writer, you must learn to steal.”

The class reacted thus:


She went on to explain herself: as artists, we run into the inevitable problem of everything under the sun having already been done before. Yes, even the sentiment that it’s all been done is a hackneyed old cushion that’s lost its whoopee. The solution then, as this wise teacher relayed, is to steal.

“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” –Oscar Wilde

(The more I learn of Wilde, the more I love him.)

This is not to suggest plagiarism. As a writer, artist, or any other creative type one should never plagiarize. However, when we encounter something that is compelling, it is our writerly duty to capitalize upon it. Sometimes that thing is a plot. Sometimes a rhyme scheme. Sometimes an amalgamation of ideas, characters, and distasteful cultural trends. Then, when we have seized the object(s) of our affections, we must make it (them) our own. Some examples:

1. “Green Eggs & Hamlet” is a delightfully witty poem which combines the stolen soliloquy of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s most famous “To be or not to be” scene) and a rhyme scheme purloined of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham.

2. 10 Things I Hate About You is a modern (1999) film adaptation of Shakespeare’s rom-com play, The Taming of the Shrew. The film filches Shrew’s plot as well as its driving characters, remodeling them and most of their dialogue to fit the rockin’ sockin’ nineties. The poem that Julia Stiles reads, for which the film is named, also seems to be a spin off of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s poem Sonnet XLIII which begins “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

3. Vampires Suck is the god-awful result of combining all three of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books into a single cinema feature in a two-hour attempt at comedic parody. Characters are given slapstick makeovers (Bella Swan becomes Becca Crane; the Cullens become the Sullens; etc.) and there are references to pop culture icons such as the Kardashians, Buffy, and Lady Gaga that no one born after the year 2000 will give three beans about.

Says The All-Knowing Wiki: “Vampires Suck was given four nominations from the 31st Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay and Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off or Sequel.”

All examples considered, some thieving endeavors turn out better than others.

But stealing from something already written (said, done, painted, filmed, etc.) is only one part of the equation. Stealing from real-life is the other. I keep running lists of anything that I think will feed good writing: textured words, visceral images, character flaws, social phenomenon, and things that make me laugh, cry, drop my jaw, or want to write an angry, angry letter.

I challenge you, in the next few days, to be aware of the things and moments that strike you. When you are amused, or disgusted, or elated, defeated, or furious, write about it.

Your friends have weird habits? WRITE THEM DOWN.

There’s that oooone awkward coworker who doesn’t understand what’s socially appropriate and makes everyone in the elevator uncomfortable each morning with his ludicrously offensive remarks? WRITE THEM DOWN.

Your HTC phone is a malfunctioning piece of shite that, in the moment your two-year contract is up, you will personally place in the middle of the street and back over in a Jeep before hailing a stampede of elephants to trample its faulty remains? WRITE ABOUT IT (I suggest an angry letter).

Used effectively, real-life details are the perfect creative fodder. They not only inform our work with an automatic sense of authenticity, but make our writing something readers can relate to.

4 thoughts on “Writing Challenge, Day 28: Stealing Inspiration

  1. God Julie I do love your writings! What I admire (and secretly ‘envy’) is your ability to play with words as of course you can in your native language. Like ‘hackneyed old cushion that’s lost its whoopee’ … I know this is probably totally ordinary to you and you do not think twice about it; but I do because while I can understand it – I often feel I cannot use the words in this peculiar playful manner native speakers can. And of course by now I have lost ability to do that in my first language … the idea of me trying to call myself a writer -:)!

    Keep on writing,

    • Thank you, Daniela 🙂 I’m always glad to hear that a detail I’ve labored over seems natural. There’s a great line about how much work that is in the poem Adam’s Curse by Yeats: “If [a line] does not seem a moment’s thought our stitching and unstitching has been [for] naught.”

      At any rate, I totally understand what you mean about not feeling poetically fluent in a second language. I love studying other languages and I DROOL over, for example, Spanish poetry, but for now all I can do is stand back in awe and go “HOW did they DO THAT?” But let’s not give up…patience, repetition, and continued effort are the things that lead to improvement. I look forward to reading more of your writing 🙂

  2. This is something I’ve stressed so often to people, and not just writers but any kind of artist. I’ve done it to such a point that I sat down randomly one day in a writer’s group and out came this unusual manifesto that was literally about being a thief. Using my pencil and paper as my knapsack, to steal images and ideas from people in my life or even stories I’ve heard, everywhere, everything.

    So many people are always afraid that they are going to poach someone else’s work, or that they could never use something they had seen somewhere else because it’s wrong. But as an artist, not only have a come to accept that I am going to steal things that I find incredible or elating but people are also going to steal stuff from me that they find wonderful. I used to hate when I found someone using an idea I had first produced (Even though really I hadn’t been the first to produce it), and that person would frustrate me. And it was the realization of when I had written this unusual manifesto that I realized somewhere deep down I had accepted that it was okay to steal from others, but that it wasn’t okay for people to steal from me. And because of that, I now actually laugh and smile and enjoy what someone has done with an idea that came from me and has spread out into the world.

    Because when it comes down to it, as a writer, I write to get my ideas out to the world. I want them exposed, and seeing people inspired by my work is amazing to feel, rather than being frustrated that an idea I had was stolen. I think it goes back to that silly saying, ‘Imitation is the most sincerest form of flattery’ because people often steal things, or imitate things they’ve seen without even realizing it. Its a sincere moment that makes me love to see things stolen now, because it just goes to show how much that idea had effected that person, even if they didn’t know it.

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