Happy Being a Thief

Art is theft. All art is a collection of influences filtered through the artist’s personal experiences. This is true regardless of the medium. A book I’ve seen many creatives recommend is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. It’s a very good book and I am also recommending it but that’s not the point. Art is theft—including my own—and I’m okay with that.

Steal Like an Artist – Austin Kleon (Affiliate Link)

That was the last time I wrote anything truly original. I hadn’t read romance novels. I had no primers or references for writing these scenes. I had no romantic experiences. I had to create scenes from scratch. I had to assume how romance worked. I pulled these vignettes out of the most powerful source of energy known to humankind—the desires of a teenage boy.

But that’s not true, is it? There were romance scenes in the fantasy novels I loved. James Bond had some sex-fueled moments. I’d seen the sappy movies my mother enjoyed watching on the Hallmark channel. I wasn’t stealing writing style, but I was stealing ideas from hundreds of sources. The ideas weren’t mine, but the words were. I’d love to be able to read these things again so I could see what Chevee wrote like without influence.

I wrote dozens of stories throughout the rest of high school. Some of them got published in our school magazine, so I still have evidence of my thievery. I was reading gothic authors—Poe, Lovecraft, Shelly, Stevenson, Wilde—and if you were to read any of my stories from that time, it would be obvious. While the premises might have been my own, these stories were not written in my voice. They were poor imitations of classics—mockeries of a hack attempting to pay homage.

At the beginning of this year (2023) I wrote a series of seven missives about my life. I hadn’t explored writing non-fiction in a while and I wanted to give it a shot. I wrote about joining the Marine Corps, my father, and coming to terms with recent successes. I very much enjoyed writing them at the time and thought that I had found a voice I could call my own—something I’d been hunting for years. The stories were peppered with emotion and humor.

Thinking I could post one of those stories this week, I re-read them all. Six of the stories are incohesive and need heavy edits. One could work, but I’d still want to touch it up quite a bit. What’s more shocking—I don’t recognize the writing at all. The stories are mine, sure, but the voice I thought I’d found? That voice is so foreign I would almost believe you if you said you found evidence that Chat GPT wrote them. Only, I wrote them. I remember spending days, sometimes a full week, writing and revising them. 

This time, the thievery was intentional. I had just come off a month of reading three David Sedaris books. I’d listened to David’s various stories on This American Life for years, but never bothered to read his work. Deciding that I wanted to try and write some humourism stories, I read his work for inspiration—and it shows. The stories that followed are not funny like David’s. They are, however, intimate and a little bit angry—again, like David’s. I tried to pit my internal turmoil against my external presentation in the same way that he would. It is very compelling to be your own antagonist in writing.

Naked – David Sedaris (Affiliate Link)

The thing that bothered me as I was re-reading these stories was that I was trying to write to a different audience. Not that I have identified my audience in some way, but the writing was aloof—like David’s. This isn’t a critique of his work, but David writes to a more sophisticated audience—himself. I tried copying his literary style with complex phrasing and bigger words than I’d normally use. I know them, and I use them well, but I don’t like using them in my writing. I’m not pretentious, so why should my writing feel that way?

Still, I’m glad I tried writing that way and I’m glad I re-read it. I rarely revisit my creations because I often see the thievery for what it is—poor. I’m a thief, but I’m not very good at it. I’m glad for it because, like any failure, I’ve learned what works better for me. This article is an example of that. It’s written in my style. What is that style? I don’t have a way of defining that, but I know what it is when I see it. Simple sentences. Non-complex language. Digestible words. Writing to convey a point. Is it an original style? Not even a little bit. It is a combination of things I’ve stolen from every author I’ve adored. I’ve taken their styles and twisted them through my own experiences. I put that combination on the page without trying too hard to be someone else. I’m a thief, and I’m proud of it. 

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