There’s a famous quote attributed to various people over the years that goes: ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal.’ I sometimes wonder if my school photography teacher was familiar with the saying.
When I started my GCSE, she told us to find a photo we liked and recreate it. Once we’d done that, we had to do the shoot again, working out how to improve it.
It seemed like the antithesis of everything I’d been taught. I was vaguely aware of copyright and that you could get in trouble for stealing other people’s art. I also knew plagiarism was very much A Bad Thing that I should never do. So why was it okay to take heavy "inspiration" (which seemed to my sceptical teenage mind to be a dressed-up way of saying stealing ideas) from someone else’s work?
If I’d thought about it more, though, I’d have realised I’d been taking inspiration from others ever since I could hold a pencil. My early drawing projects tended to be from video games and cartoons, which is where I first learned to make something resembling a recognisable human figure. My first stories (which are thankfully long-since lost after multiple moves) leaned heavily on whatever I was reading at the time, or fragments of whatever horror book I wanted to read but wasn’t allowed to.
Of course, kids copying pictures of their favourite characters or writing derivative stories is all harmless and expected. It’s much less acceptable when you’re an adult, so when I started taking art and writing seriously, I knew I had to be totally, 100% original, as I was sure all real creators were.
I remember my absolute despair when I discovered TV Tropes as a teenager—every idea I ever had was copied from someone else. I didn’t have an original thought in my brain! It took a while to learn that influence is unavoidable and, rather than a shameful thing you hope your audience doesn’t twig, it becomes a sort of in-joke for readers in the know.
One of my modules at university was about novels released in 2013. The first one on the list was This House is Haunted, which our lecturer advised was a good example of how writers love to reference other writers. The novel proves this point by opening with Charles Dickens. After that, it’s a stream of references for people who know their Victorian fiction; Gothic tropes, ghosts, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw—you’ll find yourself patting yourself on the back as you think, I understood that reference every few pages. Turns out, if you’re widely-read enough, everything becomes a tangled web of previously-used tropes, references, and allusions to other works. It forms the basis of jokes in comedies, artistic credentials in high-brow stuff, and ways to recognise and subvert reader expectations. Without borrowing (and sometimes outright nicking) bits from others, we wouldn’t have that stuff.
Which brings me along to when I was twenty and an English tutor in a primary school, sitting in a classroom with a group of six or seven kids three times a week. My job? Make them good at English. Easier said than done, right?
I decided to start this task simply, asking my students what they liked to read and write. I got mostly blank looks back.
That had me at a loss as I tried to plan our next lessons. Reading was just something I naturally loved—I had no idea how to make this happen for someone else, especially kids who didn’t have the access to books I’d had and struggled to read at all.
In the end, we read some Wolf Brother from my Kindle, because it seemed like it was probably for the right age and the little black e-reader enthralled them enough that reading aloud was a worthy trade-off if they got to use it. After we read the first chapter, I asked them to speculate what would happen next (an idea cribbed from an old English teacher who had us read the opening paragraphs of It and then write the next bit of the story). It took a few minutes to get the discussion going, but soon they were chatting about what they'd read and debating what the characters would do next.
Just like my photography teacher knew, inspiration really is critical to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed and give them direction. Asking the kids to make up a scene themselves and write about it meant more blank looks, but giving them a picture and asking them to describe what they saw worked a lot better. After a few weeks, I showed them the basic structure of a story (good old TV Tropes was on hand to help again). Now they’d had a go at different descriptions and carrying on other people’s stories, doing one of their own didn’t seem so bad. In fact, they enjoyed it (I hope, anyway) and asked if they could illustrate them too.
Term ended soon after that and we parted ways. Years later, I started working at CLA and learnt a lot more about copyright and when it’s okay to copy for learning, both in terms of the CLA Education Licence and copyright exceptions built into the law. Plagiarism is still best avoided (no matter what pithy quotes from ambiguous persons may imply), but rightsholders are generally very supportive of fostering learning and wanting students to develop their skills. Still, like any teacher, rightsholders need fair compensation for their work, or else they couldn’t keep producing it for us to use.
Whatever happened to those kids who read Wolf Brother on my slightly-battered Kindle and told me they didn’t know how to write a story, I hope they learned it’s okay to look to others for inspiration. And, you never know, maybe someday it’ll be their original stuff providing that burst of inspiration for a fresh set of learners.