In an interview about writing Bel Canto, Ann Patchett mentions “stealing”a sentence. The interviewer says, “that’s what writing is all about,” and Patchett responds, “yes” and laughs. She had used a statement overheard after an opera, Rusalka, that was subtly witty in context. Since the statement was in casual conversation, not recorded, Patchett had no duty to acknowledge any source. So It was especially honest and gracious of Patchett to credit the “owner” of the phrase. She didn’t know him personally but without providing his name, she still gave him his due. She could simply have been noting a particularly interesting source. The choice of “stealing,” though, opens a delicate matter. It implies an ownership. Since the interviewer defined the word and the response was laughter, there’s no certainty in how either the interviewer or Patchett actually interpreted the word. It was softened in the acceptable acquiring of subjects and skills and tools from one’s environment. This wasn’t really stealing. I agree. So what was it? A form of using another’s creation that’s acceptable. How do we know when it’s acceptable? How careful should we be to leave another’s words alone? When, if ever, should we ask permission? Doubtless, writers aren’t going it agree about this, but thinking about word ownership can’t do any harm and might lead to some easier decisions by some of us, based on personal ethics at least.
A nice, borderline distinction about word ownership occurs in the movie Nim’s Island. Jodie Foster’s character Alexander (Alex) is a successful (but agoraphobic) writer. She appreciates a remark a pilot states, and says “That’s a very good line. You know, I might steal that. I’m a writer.” He refuses, saying he’s a writer, too, and he’s going to use the line. Her response credits the fellow’s right: “Well. Okay. That’s fine. It’s all yours.” She acknowledges a common understanding about ownership of language with that “It’s all yours.” Here, though the phrase is oral, the speaker plans to use it. He claims it. But it’s still not recorded. Will he write it? Isn’t it a little precious to hang onto one line? Yes, maybe. How different would the scene be if he answers “Sure. I’m a writer, too, but there’s more where that came from.” The whole situation changes. The dynamics between them change. If he’s a writer, too, the words are part of his work, his image, his tool kit. If he hoards them, he’s rather comic; if he grants them, he’s generous, confident. The deciding factor here is Alex asked. If she had remained silent, the pilot couldn’t have refused, and Alex might have written it first. Granted, the movie is not a heavy one, the scene has a comic element, but the point is clear nonetheless. Lightness often accompanies touchy subjects.
While writers are constantly drawing from all their senses for material and techniques, including what they hear—dialect, inflection, jargon, tone, etc.–even oral language can sometimes be the creation of someone and that person may want recognition. How important can a few words be in a person’s career? That depends on the person. To Alex or any seasoned writer, probably very little, but to a new writer, still unsure of talent and potential, possibly very much.
The advice to “steal what you can” is pretty common among writers—I’ve heard it a number of times in workshops and casual settings, and even in a presentation by a visiting writer. Though they’re suggesting that writers should read good prose—learn up, which is definitely true—commonsense dictates the advisors don’t intend that anyone should lift written words and phrases without credit. They mean we can become better writers by immersing ourselves in good writing, by absorbing language and techniques as far as our own abilities will allow. Even deliberate copying to internalize structure and sound is a good and ancient practice. Claiming the copy as your own, though, is a practice of a different sort—stealing. Most of us know the common word for that kind of stealing: plagiarism. That’s not the subject here.
When someone else’s words impress me enough that I remember them, I shy away from writing anything remotely similar. During my graduate work at the University of Arizona, I was very moved by a description in a classmate’s story. It went something like this: “The shape of her head was engrained in the palms of my hands.” The sentence captured the gentle nature and tender love of the protagonist. It has come to mind many times through the years. Recently I phoned the person I believed wrote the story, Marvin Diogenes. He recalled that I had praised that particular line, and corrected my memory—the wording had changed slightly. Another phrase that often tempts me is “sculpted from lard” to describe a very pale person. Where did it come from? I feel it must have been in Carson McCuller’s work, or Faulkner’s. Suffice it to know that it isn’t mine. The description was perfect wherever it was. I carry a figurative sack in which to keep others’ words that I love, can’t forget, but also can’t use. So many!
Humans love words and like to acknowledge talent, wit, sarcasm, succinct observations. Communities tend to have their own metaphors, similies, a whole jargon, and to give credit within their own circles. (Edd Smith, a Tucson fiddler, was a walking non-urban dictionary. Recently, Adam Lambert was credited in the Urban Dictionary with coining “flubbing.”) When a phrase passes into the larger community, sometimes the source is forgotten (maybe claimed much later). People are careful not to use famous words without crediting, unless the source is considered common knowledge to the particular audience, such as “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “Ask not what your country can do for you,” “my guitar gently weeps,” “Frankly I don’t give a damn.”* “Houston, we have had a problem.”* “It’s a far, far better thing that I do. . . .” I’ve read a few “screw my courage” without the completing words “to the sticking place.” They never seem to fit well in the new spot.
Among writers, painful memories are often shared about seeing their spoken or written words under someone else’s name—a colleague, a teacher, a friend. Not an entire piece, not plagiarism, just the use of words and short phrases. It’s a common, unfortunate side of writing, but not a hard blow. Easily overcome by persevering. Many writers have been asked and will be asked again “May I borrow” or told “That’s great, I’m going to use that.” It’s an opportunity to be generous, to be confident. You have a store of words, a wealth. No one can use them as you will. Your thoughts and heart dictate the context and tone. Bless the user and the language. Be fair-minded when you’re the finder. How free is the word or phrase really? Should you ask?
*”Frankly” was added by scriptwriters.
*As actually spoken