Monday, April 5, 2010

Is Imitation the Best Form of Flattery?

Having a younger sister almost guarantees that, for at least a certain portion of life, someone will be copying you. Sure, it used to annoy me, but at the root of it, I still found it endearing. (If anything, she acquired many more "you're so cute" stares when my Osh Kosh overalls would drown her.)

But now, when it comes to writing, I'm not sure how I feel about the idea. The last few weeks have forced me to examine this notion. In my poetry workshop, a fellow student took the first stanza of my poem and wove his own ending. There are also two acquaintances who, after giving them a brief run down of my novel, have decided to write one with identical themes. None of these scenarios manage to excite me the way my baby sister did. Perhaps the flaw is in me?

Is it fair for someone to just grasp your unpublished thoughts, alter them slightly, and claim them as their own? It's funny because when I asked non-writers this, they've said, "yeah, take it as a compliment. Someone likes your work that much" or "you've inspired another person. That's only something to be happy about."

But when I posed this question at a writer's group, everyone unanimously agreed that it was bullshit. One of my friends went as far to say, "I find it extremely offensive when someone thinks they can just use my words and ideas."

My world is blanketed in shades of gray; there isn't always a clear cut conclusion for everything.

Are there indistinguishable threads between inspiration and imitation?


  1. I agree with your writer's group. We put in so much effort to create our own words and ideas that it would be ridiculous to allow someone to copy them.

    However, I don't see a problem with imitating someone's writing style. For example, I love the detail Jodi Picoult adds to her novels and might try to add details to my writing. In the end, I'll learn from the masters, but I'll never be exactly like someone else because along the way I'll create my own style.

  2. There is a fine line between inspiration and imitation. For instance, my story about a cyborg made from human parts is inspired by Data from the Next Generation, but the way my character is made, the world she lives in, and her personailty are all very different.

  3. Ideas are anyone's to use. I think it is what you do with the idea that makes it unique. That said, I think the lines are pretty blurry when it comes to friends sharing/copying writing ideas. I've never encountered that situation. It sounds stressful. Without knowing more about the situation it's hard to comment further but I hope you can resolve it to your satisfaction.

  4. I completely agree that ideas belong to whomever they originated with; sure we've all thought of ways we could improve upon existing literature. But those works belong to the writer, not an imitator. I love writing short stories, poetry etc and would be pissed if a sibling or anybody stole my ideas. Have a chat with your sister and let her know (nicely) how and why this bothers you. This is a case of righteous indignation.

  5. Oh gosh! I realize now that it could look as though my sister is the one who is taking my writing ideas. Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Trish! Must. Fix. Now.

    Amy and Aubrie, I completely agree that authors we look up to can provide us with wonderful frameworks!

    Paul, the lines certainly are blurry. We should definitely strive to make our ideas unique, even if they are inspired by others.

  6. I think the line between imitation and inspiration in the field of writing is very thin. Personally, any "inspiration" from unpublished work is not acceptable. However, when a piece of work is published, amateur artists can draw inspiration from it. I agree with your writer's group too.

    Hope you are doing well Saumya :)

  7. I agree with you on the shades of gray! I'm torn on this bit of someone taking your idea and tweaking it for their own use. On the one hand, I think consciously that it's flattering they like the idea and that in the end it's not so much the idea of the story but how it's executed that makes it special.

    On the other hand, if someone 'borrowed' my idea, I'd be mightily pissed off. Hijacking my intellectual property. Grrr.

    I'm wondering if people who borrow other people's ideas do so because they can't come up with any original ideas of their own. So, if they can't come up with any original ideas of their own, how are they ever going to make a successful book out of your theme?

  8. You younger sister copying you is cute. Someone imitating your life choices is definitely flattery. BUT a writer passing off your ideas as his/ her own is just not on.
    How any writer can justify doing so is beyond me.