Perhaps the last time I wrote a short story was GCSE English, a looooooong time ago. And, as is my nature, I agonised over it. For three long weeks I wrote excessively descriptive passages, and then balled them up and chucked them into the bin. It was torturous and I just couldn’t find my rhythm.
When I finally handed in the completed piece, I breathed a sigh of relief. As often happens, as soon as I relaxed I realised I had made a mistake, a huge one.
I had used the phrase “the stars were like pinpricks in the thick velvet of the night sky” and I knew I had heard it somewhere before. I knew that I hadn’t come up with it, that I had ripped it off a book or a tv show or something. I was a plagiarist and I was freaked out. Visions of being kicked out of school, or shamed in front of the whole class tormented me for the whole day.
So, I did what any conscientious student would do, I went to my teacher to own up. I told him the sentence I had used and that I couldn’t remember where it came from, but that I knew I had picked it up somewhere.
And here’s what he said ……. “So what?”
He said “it sounds like maybe Shakespeare but, then he nicked so much stuff from other sources that it really could be anyone. Do like Shakespeare did. Steal a little bit from everyone and don’t worry so much.”
It turns out that it was not, in fact, Shakespeare but the movie Highlander that had given me the quote and, to be honest it wasn’t even that much like my version. Take a listen……
And the moral of the story here? Everyone steals…..and eighties fantasy films are a great place to pick up cheesy lines.
In fact, when I googled this quote to try and find out if Highlander was indeed the original source, I found more than ten pieces of published writing with some variation of this phrase.
Everybody steals. Everybody has the same pool of cultural references to draw on. Everybody is influenced by, and in conversation with, everyone and everything around them.
Copying and inspiration are difficult topics with grey areas and lots of emotional baggage attached to them but if you are a human being creating something, and you haven’t been living on a desert island your entire life, you pretty much can’t avoid stealing.
The question is how you steal. How and when is it okay to be influenced by someone else’s work? How do you bring that influence into your own work without imitating? How do you layer your interests and inspirations to create something that draws on your influences but is undeniably your own creation?
For me, it is always a question of intention. When I came to create the first “Tales from the Moors Country” images, I remembered what my GCSE English teacher had told me and I worried less about copying. I took my inspirations and I used them as guideposts to lead me to the work I wanted to create. By examining what I liked and what I found inspiring, I was able to refine my personal style down to a few elements that make my work recognisable. I was able to figure out what I was trying to say, and how I wanted to say it…..all by looking at the things I liked. My intention was always to create something that was mine, but my inspirations were an undeniable part of the process.
I talk about breaking down what you like in order to use it in your work when I go to speak at camera clubs across Yorkshire and next Friday, May 29th, I’ll be speaking at Malton Camera Club. If you’d like to come along and hear more about how “Tales from the Moors Country” came to be, and how I learned to steal the right way, I’d love to see you there. I’ll also be talking, of course, about how I quit my job in finance and came to be a fine art photographer.
For more details please contact the club here. And, if you can’t make it next week, I promise I’ll go into this in some more depth in future blog posts.