“Steal It and Make It Your Own” or Why Reading Good Writing Matters

When I was an undergrad at UCONN, I balanced my major in English with a minor in Acting (much to my advisor’s chagrin). Although I’ve forgotten a lot about those years, I can still hear Professor Jerry Krasser saying, “Steal it and make it your own.” That was his advice to anyone attempting creative work: find the best work out there and then adapt it for yourself. Of all the things I heard from my professors, I think that was my favorite. I learned many years later that this is a variation on the quotation often attributed to Picasso that “good artists copy, great artists steal.” I like Jerry’s phrasing better—it doesn’t include so much judgment.

As an actor I do a fair amount of conscious stealing from people around me—gestures, voices, ticks, habits—I consider them all fair game. Making them my own is pretty simple because I’m using my body and my voice to perform the stolen gesture or vocal quality. They are automatically filtered through me, so even if I try just to imitate, I can’t. With writing it’s less clear: I know what the stealing part is; it’s the making it my own that I’m still working on. I’m still finding my own voice, so when I make a conscious effort to steal from another writer, it doesn’t always go well. I sent this post as a draft to Emily, and she suggested that there’s something about the style and voice that facilitates the transformation of the stolen into the own, which makes sense. The tone and voice are the writer’s presence in the work just like my voice and body are my presence on stage.

I’ve seen little hints of how this exchange might work. Like all writers I love to read—it’s the best source for things to steal and make my own, after all. Lately I’ve noticed that whether I mean for it to happen or not, what I read has a tendency to show up in my writing. While Emily makes lists of words that tickle her, words that she wants to find room for in her writing, that’s not a habit that I have developed—except when I work on Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven. Then I make note of phrases that Jane Austen uses and I found a wonderful website that is so useful to anyone writing Jane Austenesque books. But in my other work, I pretty much just wing it.

Or so I think. The truth is that when I’m reading, my unconscious mind acts like a magpie collecting shiny things: gathering words and phrases, catching on to rhythms and patterns. When I first drafted this post, I chose the mynah bird because it, too, likes to collect shiny things. But as Emily pointed out, the mynah is best known for its ability to hear a sound then reproduce it exactly. The magpie makes new objects with its stolen treasure. And that seems to be how my subconscious mind operates. Some of those shiny things turned up in a post I wrote recently over on my own blog—I kept noticing rhythms stolen from Emily’s work and unconsciously adapted for mine. I was pleased with those little bits because I think Emily is a wonderfully poetic writer, but had I tried to imitate her (as I have in the past), the results would have been disappointing at best, embarrassing at worst. I am no mynah bird.

On the other hand, on the few occasions that I have tried to finish poorly written books, I’ve seen how they influence my writing, too. It turns out my magpie mind can’t tell the difference between a polished diamond and a broken paper clip. Whatever I’m reading influences whatever I’m writing. I don’t want to steal crap and call it my own. I only want to steal beautiful things.

So, with this aim in mind, I turn to writers I admire: Kate Atkinson for the quiet beauty of her language, J. K. Rowling for the mastery of her characterizations, and Emily June Street for the musicality and rhythms of her prose. Great writers teach us how to be better writers because they give us lots to steal and make our own.

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