Our writer-minds—as I expect is true for artists and musicians—are catch-alls. Lumber rooms. Pack rats. Magpies. We gather shiny little ideas, riffs, compositions. We collect the things of life that appeal to us.
Sometimes those things aren’t ours.
We acquire. We steal. We don’t mean it. I daresay that we don’t even know we’re doing it. But we do. And that’s a scary thing.
There is a moment when interest becomes acquisition. A thing that some movie character said. A groove. An arc. These things don’t belong to us—we truly don’t even know they’re there—but we carry the treasures in our mental pockets, to bring them out when needed, to gild our own nests.
Deliberate thievery is a different thing. The plot “borrowed” from an existing work and reconfigured just enough that the borrower can throw hands in the air in feigned innocence…the tune that sounds waaaaaaaay too much like another…the visual work too uncomfortably like another… these are stolen recipes that stick in the throat.
But the other…the unintended, unconscious pickpocketing by our sticky-fingered heads: That’s the scary one. The possibility is enough to make a writer isolate herself from the cultural influences that feed her. It’s enough to make her live in a sort of terror that somebody is going to get to the finish line with the goods, even inferior goods, before she does. She doesn’t want to steal the pie off a stranger’s windowsill, as hungry as she might be.
We do not create in isolation. We receive the arts in all their forms with the hope of being blown away. A book whose chapters are mounted on the web, the blog post, the poem, the song, the work of conceptual art, the whatever…all of would like to believe that we have created something worth stealing. But to find that the deed has been done—and done by us without ever meaning to?
Not guilty, officer. Really.