I confess I’m a kleptomaniac. I don’t beg or borrow—I outright steal. I’ve stolen from The Sound of Music, Dear Abbey, and yes, the Bible. I’ve ripped off Beowulf, Pablo Neruda, Che Guevara, and Lawrence of Arabia. In a conversation with my father regarding the mysterious circumstances of our Norwegian ancestor’s immigration to Canada, he joked, “I guess there’s a little bit of larceny in all of us.” Looks like teen Kayla took that to heart. But I get it from my mother’s side too, passed down from an Alsatian farm boy who said, “Screw this barnyard noise!” dropped his pitchfork and went off to become a bodyguard for Napoleon Bonaparte. (All Lit Up didn’t name me a Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry for nothin’.) But every heist is backed by expertise and a little chutzpah.
If there’s a predominant rebel gene, I have it and this, in part, is what makes my own writing successful. But before I go on about “great writing” and what the act of acknowledged stealing—NOT plagiarising—will do for you as an artist of the written word, we have to talk about …
breaking the rules.
I’m a firm believer in, it’s not necessarily “what” but “how”. About abandoning established narratives to find your own voice and give life to what matters to you. But to break the rules, you have to know them first. This is important because within English literature, writers have been composing for more than one thousand years! That’s a lot of recycled material. Shakespeare broke with tradition in the lines “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun…If hairs be wires, black hairs grow on her head.” Yet even that trope has become cliché. It now holds as little power as “My Luve is like a red, red rose”. Writing conventions evolve in every generation and those phrases no longer resonate, no longer connect with an audience as they once did. And most importantly, they don’t say anything about you.
I often compare breaking the rules of writing to the Jazz greats—Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone. They were all classically trained, and so, when they broke the rules they changed music and how listeners connected with themselves and the world. You, as a writer, can do that too. You do it by writing regularly and finding a good mentor. Great writing is about taking risks, exploring, experimenting and pushing yourself out of a comfort zone. Then revising, revising, revising…(please, make it stop!)
Just like every other writer, I had to perfect the rules of fine writing—and in the beginning I didn’t like it much. I struggled with two important techniques: moving out of the abstract (“unpacking”) and understanding that the reader was not in my head. However, part of what I like about being an editor and writing instructor is witnessing that, naturally gifted or not, everyone starts from the same place. Everyone.
Stealing allows you to conceptualize great ideas. You can access a writer’s process, emulate a form, create a kind of palimpsest, play a game of writerly telephone, and avoid the trap of imitation. There are many ways to steal. I prefer the inspiration angle. I greatly admire the poets Safia Elhillo, Layli Long Soldier and Jake Skeets and how they interpret language, identity, and reform narrative. But I don’t sit in front of their poetry and go through it line by line, precisely imitating their style or appropriating their concepts and then passing it off as my own original work. I say, “That’s really interesting. What would happen if I borrowed Safia’s brackets, or tried out Layli’s linguistical structure, or Jake’s way of using space to accomplish this thing in my poem?” I’m currently working on an essay poem, a format invented by poet Dana Levin and incorporating that with Lidia Yudnavitch’s braided essay concept, however, I’m using these forms to express my experiences in my voice and my style.
So, how do you steal your little heart out? You follow what inspires you and you reinvent it as you want to see it. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” What do you want to see in writing? It’s not egotistical to ask that question. Just be prepared to put in the work and realize that it may take years before you have the skill set to exploit your big ideas. I was 26 when I decided I wanted to rip-off “Beowulf” (an epic Old English poem) and I was 36 before I published my steal Greta Hrímgerdr. In “Thirst” one of the concluding poems in my book That Light Feeling Under Your Feet, I borrowed the “adieus” from The Sound of Music’s “So Long Farewell” and acknowledged it in the end matter.
So, just to be clear, I am NOT encouraging writers to plagiarise. Do NOT actually steal someone’s diligently crafted work. Gratefully acknowledge influence where appropriate.
If you need to write a cliché because that’s where you’re at, do it, but don’t stop there. Your words and ideas are worth revisiting. You will discover that what you must say—what will connect with your reader—is hiding underneath those everyday expressions. And that truth may very well hold a form or voice that is unlike what “someone like you” is “supposed to write”. So go on and rebel: write you.