I am a reader, and a writer. Therefore, I am a thief. Can any of us maintain a straight face and claim differently?
Not me. And I make no apologies. Sure, I try to give thanks to the literary shadows who coat and protect me from the harsh, burning rays of true originality as if slathering me with SPF 451--thank you, Ray Bradbury. But I'm ticked off, too. At you, Mark Twain. And you, O. Henry. And you, Papa Hemingway. And you, Joseph Heller. Hell, I'm even ticked off at you, the Dumas' (Pere and Fils), you, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and you, A.C. Doyle. Couldn't any of you have left me a few crumbs that hadn't already been nibbled around the corners?
Who among us would be writer enough, vain enough, reckless enough to sit at the Algonquin Round table with the likes of Thurber, Benchley, and Parker? And once seated, who'd be bold enough to utter a peep? Not I. If read these guys. They've used up all the vowels.
Worse, which of us would allow Dickens, or Faulkner, or Chekov to pore over any of our feeble scribblings? You? Really? You who have appropriated Shakespearean thoughts, lines, verses, and entire plots as if there were some sort of Statute of Limitations on intellectual property? Why do you think the term 'intellectual property' was invented in the first place? Because of people like us. Pilferers like us.
But before you slink away, tail between your legs, mournful whines squeezing out between your trembling lips, understand this: You are forgiven. Because you simply can't help yourself. We read, therefore we pilfer.
So many Shakespearean literary nuggets have seeped into common usage, they're virtually unavoidable. So we borrow . . . often without even know who deserves the credit. But Shakespeare is only one of our most common victims.
If you write in a certain genre, you've certainly borrowed from Verne, Wells, Bradbury, Burgess, Dick, and Asimov. If you prefer another genre, you owe Poe, Stoker, Shelley, Lovecraft, and King. Or Doyle, Hammett, Garner, Christie, Stout, and Parker. Or L'Amour, Gray, Guthrie, Brand, and McMurtry. In one way or another, I've appropriated from all of them. And the only mitigation I can offer in my defense: I do it with respect . . . when I'm aware I'm doing it at all. The honest truth is, we often pilfer unaware.
But not always. For instance, when I'm reading a book I particularly like, I find myself picking up subliminal messages and suggestions the author planted in his book expressly for me. Okay, that might be an exaggeration. My point is, whatever I'm reading, influences whatever I'm writing. I call it passive pilfering.
Which brings me to my final comment. As writers, we all freely admit to being influenced by our literary heroes. Heck, our literary heroes had their 'influences', too. But I think we writers would be a happier, better adjusted lot overall, if we 'fessed up to a little well-intentioned pilfery once in a while, too. A form of therapy. Just don't do it out loud. You'll get your pants sued off.
Author's note: I disavow all knowledge of whatever demon possessed my body and forced me to tell such laughable lies. I am not responsible.
Editor's note: What he said goes double for me.- N.K.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.