My day began with coffee, feeding Sandy and mining old notebooks. Every so often, these old friends call on me to revisit past pages, reflect on where I’ve been and look for patterns or ideas that are begging to be attended to.
I love words. Seriously, I do. Word Crazy. My notebooks are filled with glittering gems collected from other writers, singers, artists, thinker-people and from conversations. There’s a lot of garbage in my notebooks, too – not fit for the outsider’s eyes.
Most of the good stuff in my notebook . . . is not my own. It’s stolen from other places. Words jotted down because they have a hold on me. I recycle them into my own writing in hopes that they can be crafted into my own voice authentically.
But sometimes, I worry.
When does a writer give credit to where words come from and when can we steal words and rework them into something unique, using them in a different context and not feel obligated to cite the source? (Yes, this is the research/grad student coming out here.)
It’s muddy waters.
I don’t know how many times I’ve written, “They were like puppies in church,” or “We melted into the furniture.” These are memorized phrases from Anne Lamott’s writing that I’ve used in both my talking and my writing. Do I credit her? Who owns a metaphor? or a simile? or a phrase? Is there even an original source? Do we go by word count?
Listening to the radio today, lyrics from Blake Shelton’s song, Mine Would Be You, nudged me to write them down,
What’s the greatest chapter in your book?
Are there pages where it hurts to look?
These words reach out and grab you. I will use them somewhere. Do I have to make sure I say they are from Blake? or his song writer? Do I revise these two sentences to make them my own before I can use them?
In my notebook are these words copied down from somewhere, a comment from a lady on a blog.
I’m glad to be on this journey at the same time as you, wonderful-writer-thinker-lady.
Dang. I adore how that sounds. I imagine being given the gift of these words and feel my heart well up. I had to keep them safe somewhere. They have become etched in my brain and they have come out in my writing. I have no idea where they came from.
The idea of being accused of plagiarism can stop a writer in their tracks.
Worse yet, it can make you not write anything at all for fear that everything you have is really from somewhere else.
Again, the image of Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like An Artist, immediately comes to mind. I get up and snatch it from my shelf. Page one of Austin’s book has these words:
Every single page of this book is a gold mine. I have to fight the urge to underline each line because of its brilliance or way it is written. Have you ever read a book that has a hold on you in that way? I have so many books full of my notes and sticky notes that they resemble more of a fan than a book (yep – I stole that simile somewhere).
Austin teaches us that nothing is original. “The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that we people call something ‘original’ nine out of ten times they just don’t know the reference or the original sources involved.”
and he writes. . .
“French writer Andre Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
This is true for anything. Writing, art, and teaching. Much of what some educators claim is “new” is actually a mashup or remix from the work of John Dewey or Paul Freire, Marie Clay or Fountas and Pinnell, Donald Murray or Donald Graves. We need to pay homage to these thinkers. Who do we think we are to claim something brilliant our own? Insane. (I’m looking down at my feet here.)
I really don’t know where I was going with this. It’s still a worry/wonder, yet it’s not going to stop me from collecting and studying the work of those I love. Our work becomes the product of those we read, study or are with. We are the sum of all these parts. Eventually, it all becomes a part of us and we don’t know where it comes from.
So, choose carefully.
If you have never been to Austin Kleon’s site, you need to get yourself some coffee, find a spare hour and head on over there. And, then of course, you’ll need to go see Chase Jarvis. These two give a person so much inspiration that it is difficult to get any of those chores on your to-do list done. No lie. You’ll be off creating. . .
I’m participating in twowritingteachers March Challenge of posting a blog post every day for the month of March. While I’ve missed a few days, I’m still in it for the long haul! To check out other writers, visit here.