Good Writers Borrow, Great Writers Steal

I recently convinced someone close to me to start watching one of my favorite TV shows, and a project I was working on about seven years ago has come back to bite me in the butt.

This draft was roooooough, and… well, I haven’t abandoned it exactly, but I’ve taken it off the back burner and put it in the fridge, so to speak. I’ll probably come back to it eventually, but not for quite a while. My point is, I drew a great deal of inspiration for that project from this TV show. It wasn’t a rip off, but there were certain elements that were pretty similar. My friend beta-read this rough draft for me, gave me some comments, and then promptly forgot about it.

Until I convinced her to start watching this inspiration-source TV show with me.

She hasn’t said anything direct, but I can tell from a few comments she’s made that she sees the similarities and isn’t exactly impressed.

It’s a bit embarrassing, but more than anything I’m reminded that learning to write is a loooong process. It’s something that requires not only practice, but guided practice. It’s the “I do — We do — You do”  process you see in any classroom. It’s gradual release of responsibility model. This creative process takes time to master and, while I’m farther along than I was seven years ago, I’m still not a master.

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That’s why, even though I’ve never written any myself, I’m a big supporter of fanfiction. Everyone needs training wheels. Every person who ever had an idea for a story drew inspiration from another source, cherry picked the elements they wanted, and then gave it their own spin. At first, that process is obvious, but as writers grow and learn, it becomes less so. When I wrote that project years ago, I wasn’t to the stage yet where I could hide my sources with any degree of skill.

I believe this was the rise of the saying, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

I am in no way saying that I’m a great writer. I’m just saying it’s impossible to come up with a story that’s 100% original. Fresh? Entertaining? Creative? Absolutely. But completely one-of-a-kind, never been done before? You can’t do it. At least, I don’t think you can. Even if you think you’ve come up with something original, by the simple nature of human thought and parallel thinking, odds are someone somewhere has come up with something similar.

And that’s OK. The whole point of this post is to convince myself that it’s OK, that you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to futilely come up with something completely unique.

But maybe I’m just saying this to make myself feel better. What do you all think? How should the process of being inspired by other stories work? How should this affect your writing? Is it possible to come up with something completely original?

One thought

  1. People say “there are no new ideas”, which is too vague to mean anything, but which I sort of agree with. Whatever you come up with, someone else will probably have thought of before in one shape or form. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take an existing idea, combine it with other existing ideas in different ways, put your own spin on it and make it something “new”.

    When I first started writing seriously when I was ten, some elements in my stories were so blatantly lifted from my favourite books that now I cringe at the thought of them. As you say, I think it’s a process. Early writing attempts aren’t intended to be shared, and we can steal as much as we like while we learn the craft. As we improve (and I really hope I’m improving), the theft gets more subtle and so disguised by our unique spin that it’s no longer stealing, just drawing from the pool of common human experience.

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