Stolen any good lines lately?

Every so often I read something I’ve written and think, “This is quite good.” It’s an infrequent occurrence and my second thought usually is, “I wonder where I found that?”

When you read enough, certain phrases and images will embed themselves to the point where they become yours.

In the liner notes of the album Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan wrote, “the Great books've been written. / the Great sayings have all been said” 

Along the same lines, French writer André Gide said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

Those messages are the same—writers are free of trying to be original. They can and should embrace influence instead trying to insulate themselves from it. (Austin Kleon, paraphrased).

When I wrote the flash fiction short story Choosing Destiny a few weeks ago, I thought I was stealing an idea from a meditation exercise I’d done a few years before. I didn’t know that I was also stealing from Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods.

My short story told of a young man walking down a corridor of doors, trying to pick the one behind which he would spend eternity. This was taken from a meditation practise of imagining a row of doors. Open one and you’re on the edge of a vast sea.

Coincidentally I was reading American Gods at the time of that particular flash fiction challenge. But I was only half-way through the book. Imagine my surprise when I later read this passage where the character Shadow is dead:

“I want to rest now,” said Shadow. “That’s what I want. I want nothing. No heaven, no hell, no anything. Just let it end.”

“You’re certain?” asked Thoth.

“Yes,” said Shadow.

Mr. Jacquel opened the last door for Shadow, and behind that door was nothing. Not darkness. Not even oblivion. Only nothing.

Shadow accepted it, completely and without reservation, and he walked through the door into nothing with a strange fierce joy.

I couldn’t (wouldn’t!) set out to plagiarize anything as blatantly it may appear in comparing my fragment of fiction to that excerpt. But independently from Gaiman’s fabulous story, I stole from his work. In advance of reading it.

Have you ever written something, only to find someone else has said the same thing, used an identical theme, or chosen your title for their book before yours got to press? Did you accept it as what Carl Jung calls synchronicity or did it seem more calculated than that?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: The Steal by Dawn Nuczek

The jury is out

Word count: 300                                 Reading time: 1-2 mins.

This spring, after years of avoiding it, I went to an open mike night. As I read the first poem I had written since high school, I clamped my hands together so they wouldn’t telegraph my nervousness. After that, I was invited to join Word Whips, a group led by the amazing poet Fran Bourassa. The challenge there was even greater: not only do writers read work aloud, they compose it on the spot.

“Speak only the truth even if your voice shakes,” sang The Blackout in Keep On Moving. That could easily be the motto of Word Whips as Fran’s free-writing exercises trigger deep emotional responses. Group members write powerful, often exquisite, pieces in five and ten minute sprints. In my inaugural session, both inspired and intimidated by the talent around me, I wrote a bitter poem to someone who once betrayed me. My voice quavered as I read it. When I finished, several people laughed, one even applauded. In being truthful, I had touched a universal chord.

No fear, no envy, no meanness Liam Clancy advised the young Bob Dylan in their early days in Greenwich Village[1]. There is so much to be learned from other artists, I have overcome my fear and envy and returned to Word Whips every month. When there, I remind myself it isn’t a critique group; it’s a sharing exercise, the chance to stretch artistic muscles. No fault-finding, no blame. The only thing anyone is guilty of is the desire to improve.

What are your experiences with reading your work aloud? Do you do it only in the privacy of your own home? Or have you taken the most difficult challenge and stormed through the barrier of your first public reading? Do you ever read out loud to anyone?


Photo by: Kenny1

[1] No Direction Home