MFA Nugget: A Fresh Take on How Artists Should Steal

MONTPELIER, VERMONT — The quote is attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” The line has been quoted enough that it’s lost a bit of its oomph. But I liked how poet Ilya Kaminsky began his discussion of the subject in his informal talk here at my Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing residency: “Steal is a good word. It’s an action verb. It’s much better than to have.”

Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky, a poet who must not just be read but be heard to be truly appreciated.

Kaminsky–already at a young age a giant in his field, and someone who the evening before took our breath away with his dramatic reading–has little tolerance for writers of any type who say their work honors another writer, or pays homage to the writer or their work. “It’s not about bowing” to the other writer, “it’s about binoculars.” In other words, he wants us to spy on what others are doing and do it ourselves.

We all went on a whirlwind tour of the history of poetry, from the Old Testament to the present day. Time and again, Kaminsky showed us examples of one poet stealing another poet’s techniques, but he kept repeating one point over and over again: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHOSE POEM CAME FIRST.

Each poet–each writer–brings their own perspective to the work. When the Polish poet Tymoteusz Karpowicz transformed the “time” construction from Ecclesiastes to examine a post-Holocaust in his appropriately titled “Ecclesiastes,” it took nothing away from the beauty or the message of that chapter of the Bible.

“What was taken or stolen isn’t important,” Kaminsky said. “It doesn’t matter who took what from whom, it matters what you do with it.”

This lecture was of particular interest to me, because I’ve encountered the word “steal” in numerous contexts connected to writing in my professional life. I’ve confronted plagiarism, in which someone else falsely represents another’s work as their own. And I’ve confronted copyright infringement, in which one author’s writing is appropriated for someone else’s use without the original author’s permission. Clearly Kaminsky isn’t talking about those examples, although our U.S. legal notion of copyright “fair use” creates confusion at times as to what is theft and what is not.

This is not the place for that discussion, however. What I took from Kaminsky’s lecture was that I should not only be learning the craft of writing by reading great writers–as Larry Sutin and others strongly advise–but I should feel free to appropriate wholesale the techniques and approaches they use to good effect, even if the appropriation is noticeable. Perhaps in poetry, where words stand out amongst white space, it’s harder to hide the appropriation. But Kaminsky’s talk made me rethink my relationship to authors I am “honoring” in my writing, such as Joan Didion and Tobias Wolff. Perhaps they don’t need me to honor them. Perhaps I should just fully embrace stealing from them, that is, fully adopting the techniques that work for them in my own work without shame.

I’m sure you’ve heard that Picasso quote. I’ll add the Isaac Newton quote as well: “If I was seeing farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” This could all be a matter of semantics, but I would welcome your thoughts on the relationship between our own artistic production and those who come before us.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

12 Responses to “MFA Nugget: A Fresh Take on How Artists Should Steal”

  1. Great article, Patrick. I thought about this a lot recently myself (also wrote a blog about it in case you’re interested: http://artistsense.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/creative-inspiration-vs-imitation-when-does-copying-turn-into-plagiarism/ ), and my stance is quite similar. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are of course a problem, but it’s not aleays as straightforward as that. I am really interested in the creative process, and I am quite convinced that we all “steal”, in the best sense of the word.
    Who can honestly say they are not/were never influenced by other people’s work, and don’t build on it?
    I sometimes also think there is some unnecessary, very destructive worry involved: If someone else does what we do (and does better with it), some of us are very quick to say that they were there first and the other person “stole” (now in the negative sense). Fact is: That’s wasted energy, because we can’t prevent other people “doing better”. We should rather focus on why we’re not doing as well as we think we could …

    • Thank you for this comment, Petra, and for the link to your post. (Hey, everyone, Petra’s post (see link above) is worth checking out. I left a comment there.

      Yes, yes, yes, to doing the best we can, and not stressing when someone does it better. Here at residency I attend readings every day–faculty, graduating students, and us first through fourth semester students (I graduate next residency, so I’ll get 20 minutes instead of 5 as I have at past residencies). I am constantly blown away by the readings I hear, and say “Holy cow, I couldn’t write that.” And you know what? I can’t. But I CAN write what I write, in the way I write it, and I can hope that somebody has that reaction to my writing (and, to my delight, sometimes they do). So that keeps me going.

  2. I absolutely encourage my students and coaching clients to use mentor texts and play around with the methods of these virtual mentors. This is how humanity advances. If someone later calls the work “derivative,” then the writer didn’t add enough of their own twist or voice to it. So be it. It’s a learning process, and not every piece is a masterpiece. Some are studies.

  3. Patrick, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in Vermont. I am reading your posts with great interest. Your comments on Kaminsky’s thoughts on stealing particularly caught my attention. While “theft” may have a sort of sexy, edgy feel to it, my philosophy on the continuum of the artistic process is a little different.

    John Donne famously told us that no man is an island. That applies even more so for artists, I should think. While Donne had a somewhat more depressing point on death’s diminishing, I think that a more optimistic interpretation of this axiom is equally pertinent. That is to say that each man’s accomplishments enhance us all and should be embraced and furthered if we are able.

    Each artist should consider it his charge to take the baton from those who ran before him and run his part of the race, handing the baton of his own achievements and failures on to those who come to run after him. We may remake the course or develop new methods and tools to personalize our leg of the race, but we cannot move forward without the knowledge and skills of those who went before. Is that not what makes a civilization civilized?

    • Hi Michele, I’m so glad you are finding these posts of value. They’re meant to spark discussion, and you’ve definitely added to it here. I like the baton metaphor, well said!

  4. Yes, I think people are overly worried about borrowing technique. Writing a good story, in my experience, requires an arsenal of technique and story wisdom. Stealing one proven literary trick isn’t likely any guarantee that the new work will succeed. But I’m so glad to have read this post, Patrick, because just this morning I was lying in bed reading Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”, and it occurred to me what fun it would be to include myself as the narrator in the novel. Almost Joseph Conrad-ian. Well, there you go, Pamuk STOLE from Conrad. And, so, on we go.

  5. Thanks for the generous share -very helpful, all of these posts!

  6. I smiled all the way through. The stealing vs plagiarism point has been something I have struggled to make sense for me. When I arrived back in the states a couple of years ago [after a twenty year absence] I threw myself into as much of the poet cybersphere as I could find [which would be how I found you].

    One item was the amount of poetry I read which either clearly used other poets’ phrases, but it was as clearly an allusion, or published poetry that was only other writers’ words, my introduction to the centos of found poetry. I have read the Fair Use for authors until I can almost recite it and find it amazingly flexible and generous.

    I’m thinking that all artists would be pleased to be stolen from, if well stolen. The stealing itself is the homage. A good writer steals. not to say ‘This is mine. Look how good I am,’ but to say ‘Look what I have done with my voice and the twist in structure here. It’s familiar but you don’t know why? That’s because you’ve read something similar by…’. This all said with pride that she took the tools and made them work for her.

    After all, do people say of ballet dancers, or baseball players: ‘Hey that’s Fonteyn’s trick of pausing, or Sosa’s stance ‘? Everyone looks back to move forward.

    It’s always fun to see you, Patrick.

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  1. MFA Nugget: An Entire Residency in One Tasty Bite | The Artist's Road - January 10, 2013

    […] Embracing theft as a way of creating. […]

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