Beg, Borrow, or Steal

A Musing on the Art of Grand-Theft Creativity, Writing, and Pro-GMing

“Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” So goes the quote by Oscar Wilde. Or, wait, was it T.S. Eliot? Or, erm, Aaron Sorkin? It’s likely Wilde never said it. Quotes like to hang out with Wilde, or at least say they did when they’re having drinks with you in the hotel bar. T.S. Eliot said something slightly different, something along the lines of, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And Sorkin? Well, Sorkin’s quote was the same, just with different words and about a different industry.

Those of us who are creatives in whatever field–be it art, writing, film, poetry, or (my sidebar project of the last couple of years) pro-Game Mastering–must eventually wrestle with the question of where-do-our-ideas-come-from?. Is there such a thing as originality? Is there such a thing as ‘creation’ rather than ‘borrowing’ or ‘stealing’. Can we have our own ‘style’, or will that always be an echo of someone else’s methods? What does the quote above, whoever or wherever the concept originated (let’s say Shakespeare, because, well, Shakespeare, so why not?) mean to us as we sit down at our easels, our keyboards, our gaming tables and … begin?

I’ve read a lot about writing. So much writing about writing. And one of the observations that the ‘greats’ have is that, when you’re starting out writing, you’re going to write much like your favorite authors write. It’s natural to do so, in the same way that if you spend enough time in another country, or in another part of your own country, you will eventually start to sound like the people there. Your accent and colloquialisms will shift. Even your mannerisms are likely to change. We humans are a species of mimics. Not to mention that, hey, most of the time it’s safer to blend in to your surroundings. Helps keep you from being eaten by the mountain lions.

It’s only after a period of time (variable depending upon who you are) that you as a creative begin to find your own ‘voice’, as it’s called: that combination of style, tone, themes, and implementation that makes a “C. Patrick”, for instance, a “C. Patrick” and not a “Chuck Tingle”.

But even then, of course, those prior influences haven’t gone away. They haven’t somehow magically vanished into the aether and now you are an all-original, all-inspired-by-the-muses, one-of-a-kind you. No, even the greats (Neil Gaiman, let’s say) are what they are because the house of their creativity is built upon a foundation of prior influence.

But is that the same as ‘stealing’?

In a discussion this morning between various GMs in our pro-GM online hangout, an incident came up of GMs joining other GM’s games (especially the games of the Big Guns: those GMs who have packed their games and are making bank doing this gig) in order to see what their secrets are and then steal those secrets for their own games.

Or borrow those secrets.

Or imitate them.

The consensus seemed to be that this activity was bad and should be censured. Akin, in fact, to corporate espionage. I dunno. Maybe. Heck, maybe I was the one who likened it to corporate espionage. or maybe it was Oscar Wilde–don’t remember at this point. And, sure, if you’re being all secretive about it, that’s not up to ethical snuff. “Ahhh,” you say, “I’m a brand-new GM here in this Wild West world of pro-GMing–” at which point you twirl your mustache…or your earlobe, if you you don’t have a mustache– “and I shall sign up for a few games with X, the GM, who is TOP RANKED, and I shall observe from my corner while I twirl my mustache (or earlobe), and I shall see how they do it and they I shall make that exact same product and I, too, shall be a TOP RANKED GM!” and then you cackle, “Muhahahahahaahahahaha!” you say. And then you go out and become The Asylum and make “Sherlock Holmes” (though it DOES have a dinosaur in it, so who can complain, right?)

And being all secretive like that is kinda sucky. You really shouldn’t do that. Be up front about it. Most GMs will happily let you sit in on a game or two of theirs and see how it looks. Most writers will happily let you read their books (I mean, duh) and check out their styles. Many will even share their methods and their personal tricks and their habits: Stephen King wrote his best stuff while high on cocaine (can’t recommend this method: don’t do drugs, kids); Neil Gaiman hand-writes his manuscripts; Toni Morrison did, too, on legal pads; Shakespeare wrote in a bar, probably.

There are whole books dedicated to How I Made This Thing. Whole YouTube channels. Whole Discords. Whole worlds of information out there. No need to steal or even beg for the knowledge.

So why aren’t we all Great Literary Figures, Renowned Artists, Top-Rated GMs? For that matter, why aren’t all of the Great Works the same? (Hollywood blockbusters in any given season notwithstanding)

Because, well, we find our own voice. We find our own way to incorporate the things that influence us into our work and then we set off running. You see, T.S. Eliot’s quote doesn’t stop with “…mature poets steal.” He went on to say, “…bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

I can try to do something the exact same way as someone else, but this will not serve me. It won’t fit me, even if I love the way THEY do it. I will never ever ever ever write like Neil Gaiman does. But do I want to? If I’m being honest with myself: no. For one thing, even just thinking about hand writing an entire novel makes my hand cramp up. No, I don’t want to be Neil Gaiman. I want to be C. Patrick. I want my style and my voice and my method to shine for me and thus allow me to give my audience–in whatever form they take–something wonderful that they will cherish…that they, if they are artists too, will borrow or even steal, until they, too, can emerge as something bigger than what has influenced them.

When I go and play at another GM’s table, I often think, “Hmmm…well, here’s how _I_ would have done that differently.” Or I read an author’s book and think the same about how I would have handled the concept. Of course. And that is good. Once that begins, you are forging your own path, your own voice. But, also, I see things they do and go, “Ooooo…that’s awesome; that totally fits with my style.” And then I “weld that theft” into something that IS mine. Something that was born out of that influence, but which you might never be able to trace back without a genetic test.

And when another GM comes to my table (as happened recently), or another writer reads something I’ve written and says, “Hey, wow, that was awesome, I picked up some great ideas from this that I’m going to incorporate into my own work,” I say…”Yesssssssssssssssss.”

And, man, I look forward to seeing what they come up with so I can enjoy that creation…

…and maybe steal something from it.


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My Friend …

Toward the end of “Tombstone” (the awesomely trope-y and irresistibly quotable 1993 movie starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday), Wyatt Earp visits Doc on his deathbed and tells him that he wrote a book about him. The book was called “My Friend, Doc Holiday.” Doc didn’t seem all that interested, but the intent was clear: Wyatt loved his friend and wanted to commemorate his life.

I want to commemorate my friend’s life. I’m a writer; I should be able to do that. But every time I give it a start, I find myself writing down the usuals: great guy, passionate hiker, was good to children and pets; loved his friends and family. That’s an obituary, not a commemoration.

And yet in something this side of book-length, I’m not sure how to do that. And when I think, Fine, I’ll just do book length–writer, duh!–I once again have to accept that my memory is a sieve. I depend on my friends and my photography to be my memory for me. And so what will happen is that I will drive by a trailhead and suddenly think of that time Chris and I went hiking in the Mark Twain National forest in southern Missouri, completely unprepared for the humid, 99-degree day (ie: no food, no water, no compass, no nothing but our clothes and a desire to do a bit of a walkabout). We managed to wander off the trail and get a bit lost. Tired, hot, losing our tempers and our hope, we bushwhacked for a while and then came across the most wondrous find: a spring trickling over a small, stony cliff, filtered by moss. We put our hands under the dripping water and drank, our parched bodies not caring about bacteria or microbes or deer pee. It was the best water I have ever tasted.

I think of that and cry.

Or I pull out a gaming book to prepare for a session and remember how Chris and I first met, way back in 1990 (good lord, that long ago?) when he was looking for a game and we were looking for a player and spotted just the right index card in the rolodex at our Friendly Neighborhood Gaming Store: it was this guy wanting a group that was, “mature adults without a lot of drama.”

I think of that and cry.

Or I wander by my DVD collection (yeah, I still have one of those; leave me alone) and spot “Tombstone” there on the shelf and remember those multitude of times he and my then-wife and I watched and rewatched it, until you could hardly hear the actors’ lines because we were drawling out the quotes.

And I cry.

I want to tell you about the hikes we went on. So many hikes and camping trips. I want to tell you about the life he wanted to live: one that involved a VW Van and bumming around Mexico. I want to tell you about the experiences he had on his several treks on the Appalachian Trail, even though I wasn’t able to join him on those. I want to tell you about our always-shunted-into-the-future plans of hiking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I want to tell you about the various times we were roommates and the adventures we had.

That time Chris and I went kayaking and were warned about the terrible, terrible ponies and their bite-y ways. No, really. That happened.

But I’m afraid I’d tell it wrong. Because I also want to call him up while I’m writing that book and say, “Hey, do you remember that time we came across that weird water mill north of Springfield? Why were we up in that area? Was that the time we also found that little fenced-off and abandoned cemetery, went in, and came out covered in deer ticks?” And he’d say, “No, we were looking for that bridge where you were supposed to be able to park on it, put your car in neutral, and then it would move forward on its own and you were supposed to be able to find dusty handprints on the trunk. And that water mill wasn’t north of town.”


“Man, do you remember that first house we were roomies in?” We called it the Incredible Sinking House because every time it rained it seemed the house sank another 1/8th of an inch below the surrounding terrain. We’d go into the kitchen in the mornings and there would be slug trails across the floor. My cat would catch rabbits and snakes and bring them–still alive!–into the house. “Of course,” he’d say. “Remember that oil drum out back we were afraid to open because we assumed there was a body in there?”

I do now.

When I was living in Mexico with my then-wife, Lora, Chris came down and visited. I showed him the usual destinations: the Zona Silencio (a radio dead-zone, ’cause, y’know, aliens); the ghost town of Mapami and its old mine accessed via a 900-foot long suspension bridge; downtown TorreĆ³n with its colorful shops and tasty foods, watched over by the world’s third-largest Christ statue, the Cristo de las Noas. But the most memorable bit of that trip was the trek we took heading back up to the States, and not just the armed checkpoints where guys in military fatigues would ask us, “You have any drugs in there?” pointing at the car, and when I said no, responded, “You want some?” but also when we got to the border, having loaded the trunk with alcohol requested by various friends back home, only to learn that we were only supposed to have, like, a liter and a half of liquor OR a case of beer, and NOT an entire trunkful of booze. Yet the pre-9-11 border guard was nice to us and let us pay the tariffs on all of it, rather than confiscating any. And talking about this, Chris would say, “Nah, man, that was after you and Lora broke up. We were just down there for a visit. Which means it wasn’t a pre-9-11 border guard, either.”

Oh, right!

Thirty years of memories. I’d screw the book up, is what I’m saying.

Thirty years of being friends. We weren’t always living in the same city, but we’d call up and chat quite often. Bemoan the state of the world. BS about whatever. Recently, after Chris’ esophageal cancer went into remission against all the odds, we decided to do a podcast together. We couldn’t quite get a handle on what we wanted it to be like, so I snagged the domain name and we started recording us chatting. Just talking, but recording it rather than letting it fade into the aether of memory. We only got enough material for about three episodes. I’ll post a link here when those are ready for you to listen to. When I can finish editing them without, y’know, crying.

I wish we’d had the time for a hundred more.

F*&@k cancer.

I miss my friend.

Anytime, anywhere, man. Ah’m your huckleberry.

. . .

You may or may not have known him, but if the spirit moves you, the family has asked for donations to go toward Esophageal Cancer Awareness in the name of Chris Cook. I would also add that Chris would have been pleased if we also threw some money toward our local Trail Associations. Thank you in advance, everyone. And, hey, savor every memory and moment you have.

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Imposter Syndrome and You

“Why would anyone pay you money for that?”

“You’re just starting out; you’re going to screw it up.”

“Who do you think you are, claiming to know enough to do this thing?”

Words from your detractors and internet trolls? No, these are the voices in your own head, questioning your ability to achieve whatever it is you are currently striving to achieve, whether that’s writing, art, teaching, gamemastering, woodworking, electrical systems maintenance, audio editing, dog walking, or whatever your goal is as you shift something from the state of passion or hobby to the world of economically-driven marketability.

I know, because those voices frequently pipe up in my own head. Recently, I started out on the path of becoming a professional, paid, Game Master (GM) in the Tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) community thanks to a new online service that matches up players in need of a GM with GMs hiring themselves out to do just that. When I joined the GM chat area a couple of months back, one of the first things I heard is how people are astonished that anyone would actually consider paying them for their GMing skills. Check out my previous article, “Paid-vs-Free Game Master Services” for more on that subject. But the second thing I heard, and continue to hear, is the doubt that my fellow GMs, both the ones who are just starting out as well as the ones who have been running and playing TTRPGs for years (or decades), have about their ability to do the job.

These doubts have a name: Imposter Syndrome.

I’ve suffered from this affliction on numerous occasions. The most telling of these was back when I was teaching. For over twenty-five years, I taught English Composition and Literature classes at the university level. Early on, I was hardly older than my students. On my first day of classes, I had to put the sheaf of papers containing my syllabus and my notes down so that my students wouldn’t see my hands shaking. Over the years, I became much more confident, but every time I would hear another teacher’s lecture (in my field or out of it), I would think, “What am I doing here? These people are so much better at this than me.” Or I would do some reading to catch up on the newest philosophical thought vis-a-vis Composition and think, “Gah! I’ll never have the range of knowledge I need to do this.” Or a student would ask something about Faulkner and I’d have no idea about the answer and I’d think, “Crap, well, I’ve finally been found out. I wonder if the local supermarket is hiring?”

Me, teaching in the way-back-when. Notice the excellent use of finger pointing

That idea of ‘being found out’–the ‘finding out’ part being when the people who are paying you for what you do discover (you feel) that you hardly know more than they do, a realization accompanied by a look of disdain that you are certain they are sure to give you–is at the heart of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome assails you when you decide, because you just don’t have any more room on your mantle, to put those hand-carved wooden figurines you’ve been creating all winter up for sale on Etsy. “Oh, I’d better mark them at $5,” you think. After all, who would want to pay more than that for something you made?

Or when you doodle some art for a friend who is in need of an online avatar, but even though they offered you $20 for it, you say, “Nah, it’s good; only took me five minutes to make it.”

Or when your cousin wants you to take a set of family photos and pays you market rate and you’re like, “Holy carp! They’re going to be so disappointed in those shots.”

Or when … yeah, well, you know when, because I bet you’ve been there.

So what do we do about it?

Well, one thing is that if someone is willing to pay you for something, let them. Another thing is that you should let them pay you a fair price. This will help you eventually move on to charging a fair price and not feeling bad about it.

I, unfortunately or not, live in a society (the USA) where we are constantly pressured to make money–your individual worth as a human being is, in fact, often judged on how much you make and what kind of job you have–and so, until and unless that changes, we who try to turn our passions into ‘jobs’ must be adamant toward our patrons and toward ourselves about the fact that we are worthy and that this is what we’re worth.

You may have heard the phrase “dress for success,” as in, if you look professional, then people will think you are professional, even if you feel inside like you’re wearing a t-shirt, ratty cargo shorts, and Crocs. Well, that applies to an extent here: look like professionals in your field look (and if that’s t-shirts, ratty cargo shorts, and Crocs, then so be it), but, more importantly, act like you’re a professional and pretty soon you’ll come to believe it along with everyone else. Don’t say things like, “Hey, I just started out at this drawing-caricatures-on-the-beach thing, so don’t be too hard on me,” or “Hey, you’re my first real sale,” or “Wow, I really messed that up; if you want a refund, I wouldn’t blame you.” There’s no need for being fake or lying, but keep telling yourself, “I know this. I’ve got this.” One day, you’ll come to believe it.

My first art show, and my first art sale

Next, or maybe first: Find out what the high end and low end pricing is for whatever service or product it is that you’re offering. Decide where you feel you fall in that range. Then up that number by 25%, because you are almost certainly undervaluing yourself. When you see people paying you that price, believe me, you’re going to start feeling like you’re worth it.

Speaking of which, believe people when they tell you that you’re good at something, or that they got something out of the whatever-session they just had with you, or that everyone in the fam just loved the photos you took. They’re saying that not just to be nice (especially if they’re paying you), but rather because it’s true.

The other day I ran a nicely-paid game for a corporate client (essentially an after-work bonding experience in the Year of Pandemica since they couldn’t head down to the local pub). It was a 2 1/2 hour game (which is not nearly enough time) with complex characters run by people who had mostly never gamed before, but despite my doubts, that’s what the client wanted. Early on, a couple members of the team had to drop out, which I’d been warned about beforehand, but still I was thinking in my head, “If I had just made this more accessible, or not tried to cram so much into so little time, then they would have stayed.” At the 2 1/2 hour mark, though, we weren’t quite done with the adventure, but the remaining players wanted to finish. So we went for another forty-five minutes. At the end of it all, my main thought was, “Welp, screwed that up on so many levels.” But the feedback as they were logging off?

They had a blast.

We will often feel like imposters. I still felt it at the end of 25 years of teaching. I feel it when I’m running games even though I have GM’d TTRPGs for decades, have a podcast wherin we play them, and spend much of my waking time thinking about gaming. In more than a small part, this is because we don’t realize our own knowledge and skill. That avatar doodle I mentioned earlier? That was a real experience with a friend of mine. They made me a thing. It is a thing I could not have made. It is an awesome thing. They made it in, like, ten minutes and so to them it seemed to have less worth for that. For me, the fact that this was something they made in only ten minutes? Awe inspiring.

You are not an imposter.

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