Where To Get Writing Inspiration: Beg, Borrow, or Steal?


Oh my god that hair…(My HS yearbook pic)

For the writing class I’m taking I had to write a story in a genre that I don’t usually write in. It was supposed to be about something that had happened to me in high school, or to someone close to me. So, in case you don’t know me, I’m old. I went to high school a looooong time ago. I’m not one of those people with a great memory who remembers all the things. Truth be told, I think I remember the sad or traumatic things mostly. And I remember a glimmer of this thing and that thing… sometimes. But I felt like I’d mined my high school stories already (or at least the ones I’m willing to share). So I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I texted my daughters.

Me: Tell me a story about something that happened in high school. I need it for a paper I’m writing. It can be a story about anything… 😬

Daughter: how about the time you didn’t let us go to radiohead so we screamed about it in the kitchen during spencer’s drum lesson

Me: 😐

Daughter:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Me: I don’t have to be in the story (especially as the bad guy)

Other daughter: slack-imgs.com.png

But then they helped. I mean, I did have to push a little until they each coughed something up. They both told me some stories though. There were some similarities to a couple of them. Some similar settings (on a boat!) and in what happened (adventures!). Well, sort of. And I was feeling some themes. So I picked a bit from one and a bit from another, and then I made up a bunch of stuff. I used the first names of some of their high school classmates and friends, for fun. I think it came out ok… I dusted the whole thing with a touch of magical realism (genre assignment: done!).

Then my daughters wanted to see it! I have to say, I felt a little funny showing it to them. Because I’d taken stuff from their lives, things that had really happened to them, and I had run with it. I made shit up! And it occurred to me that in the novel I’m writing (did you all know I’m writing a novel?!) I have characters that are sort-of-kind-of based on people in my life. But not really. Because I write fiction. So even if I take a phrase that someone I know might say in real life, and put it in the mouth of one of my characters, I’m not trying to have my character be the person who really says that thing.

I think why I ended up being ok with showing them the story is because a shit ton of mother love ended up in it. It was never really about either of them. It was their life events acting as writing prompts. I definitely didn’t tell their stories. Because you know I would never try to co-opt that from anyone (and especially my own children!).

It got me to thinking though. I believe that as writers we need to be fearless about what we put on the paper. And we can’t help but mine our own lives and the lives of those around us. But sometimes it feels like such a fine line between appropriation and inspiration.

What do you think? Do you beg, borrow, or steal your stories?





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9 responses to “Where To Get Writing Inspiration: Beg, Borrow, or Steal?

  1. All of the above. That’s what writing is! It’s like putting life into a blender…and getting something new. A smoothie. Didn’t you know a novel is like a smoothie?

  2. Carrie Finison

    I do all three – whatever it takes. It’s all fair game, though it takes a long time to percolate (usually) so by the time it comes out in a story, the original material isn’t necessarily recognizable – at least I don’t think it is! I guess I’m kind of like a coffee filter.

  3. Gerry Walker

    My first book was based on stories from my granddad’s life; his family homesteaded in Florida in the 1880’s and his life was full of alligators, Indians (Billy Bowlegs in particular) and much wildlife: sea turtles, bears, panther (or “painters” as he called them). Couldn’t have made up some of the stuff that was the basis of our bedtime stories! They were so vivid in my mind that I’d hear him talking to me at 4 in the morning: “Don’t forget to tell them about…”

  4. I wouldn’t say I’m fearless about putting things on paper. I do censor myself a bit (many, many fewer cuss words, for example). But, everything and everyone that had ever crossed my life path–whither it be actual incidents I’d taken part in or things I’ve only heard about–have found, or will eventually find, themselves in my stories in one form or another. I don’t really consider it begging, borrowing, or stealing. It’s more like having one part of me becoming another part of me but more. I guess I take a gestalt approach.

  5. I once studied writing with a famous writer. When the school year ended he went on leave to write the novel that would end up making him Famous. When I read the book I discovered a scene that bore some striking similarities to a story I’d written for his class. When he came back from leave I worked with him again, and mentioned the scene. His response was to quote another famous writer (Shakespeare?) as having written something like, “It doesn’t matter whose garden you steal from. It’s how you replant it.”

    I wasn’t entirely convinced at the time. And I guess that’s not the same as “stealing” from real life. But all these years (and if you’re old, I’m *really* old) those words have stuck with me, and I’ve interpreted them as meaning that life trickles into our fiction all the time. It’s just how the process works. But yes, as you say, we have to take care not to co-opt or appropriate.

    Also, just the other day a writer friend told me about a dramatic event he witnessed in real life and then included in a story exactly as it happened. This is something he warns his writing students not to do, but the event was so compelling, he failed to follow his own advice. The resulting scene was terrible, and after the book was published, he regretted it so much that when the book was reissued in paperback, he *rewrote the scene* to make it more believable. But he’s still so embarrassed by the original version that he wishes he could find all the hardcover copies, with the original version, and fix them.

    Also, your yearbook picture hair is almost identical to my yearbook picture hair.

  6. Barbara Senenman

    Beg, borrow, steal? How about clone? Looks like the orginal, but it’s not. Then all the time. I had just finished a middle-grade novel. Quite a few of the humorous conversations between the main character and his best friend were conversations my daughter and I had. My daughter would see the look in my face and say, “Rusty is going to say this isn’t he?” or “This conversation is going into one of your stories isn’t it?” I’d just grin, nod, and say, “Thanks. I’ve got to go write this down.”

    Talk about writing out of my comfort zone. I thought when I took a memoir writing class, that this was it. Then the poetry class was out there. But, a story is in my head that won’t go away. It’s science fiction. I don’t know nothing about birthing non-fiction and am afraid I’m over my head. It’s an aliens take over the Earth story. It’s the Lorax meets Independence Day. I’m trying to piece it together so it makes sense. I figure I’ll try to write as scenes as they come to me and then worry about if it’s believable. I’m sure there will be plenty of research I’ll need to do too. Sci-Fi readers are serious. This can’t be fluff. I love humorous fluff. I am a panster, so am resisting trying to outline it first, but I’m going to have to do that too because a character who I thought was going be a minor character wants to tell her side of the story too. So two POV characters. I’ve never done that either. BUT GUESS WHAT? I’m cloning events from my life to be part of this character’s life. No, I’ve never battled aliens. Only my Uncle Sidney who loved karate and wanted me to love it too!

    So beg, borrow, steal, clone, mutate from life. Great scenes and stories come from it.

    • Pete

      Sci-Fi readers aren’t necessarily serious… “Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers” is an excellent example. Look at Cliffor Simak or Sheri S. Tepper or Ursula K. LeGuin. You don’t have to have a degree in Astrophysics to do the sci-fi dance.

      • Barbara Senenman

        Thanks, Pete. That’s a bit of a relief. I won’t be as stressed when I’m writing. I’ll also check out your suggested readings.

  7. My kid says and does and ton of weird stuff so I borrow from him occasionally. It’s the least he can do, I mean I keep him alive so…
    Of course I don’t mine from him, but I can’t help feeling that spark of inspiration when I’m around him.