When is it okay to steal?

The daily day at the page throws so many temptations in our paths. Perhaps words in their infinite combinations are not so infinite after all.

A word, a phrase, an image: It’s easy to fall in love with these things. And once you do, it’s not a love that’s easily surrendered. The temptation to “borrow” a felicitous group of words from your own work is almost irresistible.

Yet, there IS such a thing as too much love, too tightly held. Thievery like that is laziness; a tired brain’s way out of searching for the harder-won and more elegant solution. That’s not to say that the phrase won’t fit. But it’s a cheat. And it’s the writer, not the reader, who’s getting cheated.

I go so far as to keep a list of words to check for the frequency of their appearance. Some of these words I might repeat deliberately…like the word that is the title of the book I’m working on now—repetition for effect. Some of them are just mental wanderlust: In cases like those, I’ll confine the word’s usage to the place where it will be most evocative, and change the others. Sometimes, I’ll just let it be.

Harder is the avoidance of a ooooooohh-inspiring phrase from another writer (when I’m reminded of one, I’ll let you know; it’s been a tough morning.) These are verboten. One cannot, in any shade of conscience, borrow coin from this tempting pile of richness. One must nod only, grudgingly sometimes, and walk away; must try not to store that beautifulness in some subconscious storehouse of envy, to be retrieved later, once one has conveniently forgotten where the thing came from. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” may sing in the head. But it belongs to somebody else. Put down the laptop and back away from the page before someone gets hurt.

Borrowing from one’s own stockpile is a little dicier. The presumption that a reader has read everything one has written, and will remember every delicious turn of phrase…sorry, not happening. Ego says yes, reality says no. Hell, the writer can’t even remember what she’s put to paper half the time.

But sometimes, sometimes, a little kleptomania is okay. Until you get caught at it.