In elementary school, I plagiarized. After an early exposure to Sherlock Holmes, all of my English assignments were repurposed Arthur Conan Doyle plots. I had the temerity to even keep the characters the same, the hope being one day my tales of Holmes and Watson would expand the official canon. After being swept up into Brian Jacque’s Redwall, my stories turned toward talking animals liberating castles. Discovering Robinson Crusoe’s tales of shipwreck lead to a survival guide obsession and many attempts at my own make believe adventures.
There’s a long tradition of plagiarism in the creative world. In less malicious terms it takes the guise of inspiration and allusion, each generation of artists inspiring a next evolution or a new movement or the resurgence of an old. Hunter S Thompson used to hammer out full Hemingway novels on his typewriter so ferocious was his admirations of Papa’s terse, evocative prose. Picasso’s iconic “art is theft” musings echo his contemporary poet friend T.S. Eliot, who declares, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
I’d like to think that creatively we are more than just the sum of our collected influences, but it would be foolish to disregard how foundational a role our inspiration plays. Our bookshelves serve as literary family trees for our patterns of thought. Our desire for creative expression is natural and perhaps unique, but the mediums are learned, not invented. Language is not a personal construct. We did not teach ourselves to talk or to write in the same way that walking comes biologically hardwired. Expression itself is inevitable, but our method of communication is borrowed from the wild world around us.
The famed conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote a beautiful essay on cutting through an old oak, stuck by lightning, and rendered incapable of life. Leopold and company felled the ancient giant with a two-person cross saw. While sawing through each growth ring he tells the history of the country and the surrounding wildlife: of mankind’s relevance and abuse to the environment through the years.
Sometimes I imagine my own literary cross section. If years from now my brain were to be halved, splinters of Steinbeck and jumbled letters of Lewis would tumble out.
The formative early years would show Seuss and Silverstein: twin titans of silly banter and witty wordplay. The next ring unapologetically etched with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s guide through adolescence alongside Harry and Ron and Hermione. Different seasons too would be reflected: the droughts where I turned to Anne Lamott’s unparalleled ability to present real tragedy and hope in raw and equal measure. The well-nourished rings most likely coupled with David’s Psalms and Solomon’s Proverbs. Hemingway’s indelible touch would abound, extending from high school, through college, and still slivering into today. These recent years would be marked with Abbey’s far-flung wilderness manifestos and Kerouac’s poetic stream of consciousness, feeding a new generation of quixotic expeditions into the wild unknown. Yet the raw edges might be ringed with the quiet influence of Mary Oliver’s poetry I’ve sat with many mornings recently—paired nicely with Wendell Berry’s steady and soulful agrarian watering.
There’s an element of excitement that comes with the opportunity to water the trunk. With each season’s passing another author becomes a friend and a sage called forth for particular situational wisdom. You carry with you an ever-growing knapsack of wisdom and inspiration. In my month on the Matanuska glacier I had to retire my slim Hemingway novel: tales of Cuban rumrunners and long days spent sailing under pristine blue skies didn’t lend themselves towards a shivering frostbitten environment. They inspired a laconic daydreaming and heartache rather than an embrace of cold-weather sorrow. Instead I found solace in Krakauer’s brutal tales of mountaineering tragedy on the slopes of Everest. It gave me context and—strangely—a bit of strength to continue pressing on.
I’d love to gather my bookshelf of authors for one wild dinner party reunion. A feast I would no doubt be unqualified to attend, but still observe from a recessed corner, and after the second bottle of wine was served, emerge to interact. It paints an interesting picture: Thoreau and London, elbow to elbow with the venerable Dr. Seuss, breaking bread together and exchanging quips, pleasantries, and insults. But for now at least I’ll have to content myself to placing them next to each other in the bookcase, imagining their conversations, and slowly but surely stealing their ideas.
*I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that much of the first half of this post along with most of the driving idea and many of the quotes were outright taken from Austin Kleon’s book and TED talk: Steal Like an Artist (both of which I highly recommend).
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.