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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