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Yesterday I took a break from being endlessly fascinating and re-read one of my favorite books. I was breezing along the fifth or sixth page, going back over the sentences and paragraphs that I love, dipping into a narrative that has shaped my view of the world, minding my own business; and suddenly the book slapped me upside the head with two words that stopped me cold.

Nothing salacious or bawdy, foreign or obscene: they were two ordinary words.

Trouble is, they are two words that I’ve been repeating in my Damn France Book, two words that I’ve been congratulating myself on being so damn clever for putting to such good use. I was really proud of those two words, and had given myself a lot of credit for excavating them from the English language and dusting them off, putting them into the gem-setting of my story, and making them shine in my French context.

And now I just discovered that they had already been put to the same use, in a book I’ve read and re-read, and that I’d stolen them…and even worse, I’d stolen them and not even known it.

This puts my whole inordinately high self-esteem into question.

The words are “crash course“, and although they are used (in my favorite book that turned me into a thief) in a totally different setting than the way I’ve used them (in my favorite book they usher in some advise on romance; in my Damn France Book I use them to, um, usher in information about French stuff), they both set up a paragraph (as ushers) the same exact way. And yes, crash course are words that are fairly common in our language, hardly as trade-marked as “So it goes” or “A clean, well-lighted place” or “Bucket List”; but still…I feel bad. Bad, bad, bad. Bad…

… because I really want to keep them. I’ve become very attached to crash course. But yet, I know they are not mine…and worse; I now know that I was too stupid to not know they weren’t mine until I was caught red-handed. That makes me feel even worse. Because intentionally stealing is one thing: unwitting imitation is hack.

So I’m trying to think my way out of this. For  instance, I was lying wide awake at 2:30 this morning and I thought: cover songs. The past few days I’ve been listening to Michael Feinstein’s The MGM Album  CD over and over; specifically, he does a cover version of If I Only Had a Brain that I love. Do I fault him because the Scarecrow got there first? No! I like that he’s taken a standard and given it his own tweak, put a whole new shine on it…

Yeah, I’m not buying that simile either.

How about this: In 1977 The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden was published and became a world-wide success. 7 million copies are in print. I own one of those copies. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve been inspired by the hand-written text, the year-long journal format, and the mix of nature notes and illustrations. Like this one (from October):

My own book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, also has a  hand-written text, is a year-long journal, and mixes nature notes with illustrations. Here’s my October:

As much as I’ve been inspired by The Edwardian Lady’s diary, I’ve also made my book very different, deliberately adding a whole new theme of travel  on top of the year-long journal, adding in bits of memoir and domestic details to make the narrative muchmore personal, and I layed off on all those dull quotes from Shakespeare and those long Victorian poems that are pure filler. (I should say that although I’ve always been a big fan of The Edwardain Diary, I’ve also always wished it wasn’t so damn boring.) So I’ve never felt that I “stole” anything from Edith Holden; I’m guilt-free here and besides: illustrated year books have been around since the middle ages. Since 1410, we’ve all been borrowing our art journals from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry.

(Those animals in my October  illustration [see above] are coyotes. Because in my world, October is the Coyote Month…Edith Holden, eat your heart out.)

I’ll be painting some October leaves for you this weekend, and putting the blow-by-blow account up on this blog. And as far as any painting or writing I do, you all are free — welcomed, even – to borrow as much as you want.

Help me out here. Can I borrow “crash course”? Or is it stealing?

9 comments to The difference between stealing and borrowing:

  • Barbara Lemme

    I don’t think it is borrowing or stealing. “Crash course” is used so often in daily language and writing that it has become “common domain” in my opinion. Unless you can invent a new expression meaning the same thing, just use this one. It certainly won’t detract from the book. Stop stressing and paint those leaves.

  • Shelley

    Not stealing or borrowing ~ just an everyday expression that is adaptable to so many situations. You are using it in your own inimitable style to share your personal experiences in France ~ so I say, bring on the “crash course”!

  • emily m

    agree with your two coments and remember, there is nothing new under the sun, and I have no idea who came up with that gem.

  • Nadine

    I think you should ditch “crash course” because it’s a cliche.

    I’m a technical writer and my readers rarely volunteer to read my stuff. They read it because they have to for their jobs. I’ll use cliches as a way of informalizing the text and easing away any tension the readers might bright to a technical topic. When a person smiles, it releases endorphins in the brain and makes the person more welcoming to the task of reading my text. Finding familiarity in a foreign situation makes people smile, and that’s why I use cliches. Sparingly.

    There’s gotta be something French that means “crash course”; “le precis” (or is it “la precis”)?

  • Deborah

    Ha! Thinking the same as Nadine, I had to go to an online translator: cours intensif for the literal French. “Cours” makes me think of coeur — coeur intensif — poetic image, that.

  • Sally

    Ecclesiates, 1:9 “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” And good old dull Shakespeare, who added a remarkably number of phrases/clichés to our language, picks up on the idea in Sonnet 59.
    “Crash course” is so common that it might be almost be considered one word, and what else do you have to write your book with, Vivian, but words?
    Unless they are having internal visions (think Hildegard von Bingen), visual artists borrow from the real world all the time. It’s their rearrangements of the world that bring their audience something fresh. Same sort of thing holds for writers, unless they annoyingly start making up new words. Your writing has always seemed fresh to me, Vivian, and your distinctive writing voice sticks with me when I make entries in the artist’s journal I add to sporadically. I make an effort to put myself, not an echo of you, onto my pages, but the influence is there. Big deal. A compliment to you, and a starting point for me.

  • I know exactly what you mean. I once used the phrase “important in pigtails” to describe an older sibling from the little sister’s point of view. I was very pleased with myself until I found it in an Agatha Christie novel.

    I tried to tell myself that intention is everything, and I didn’t mean to steal it. I vacillated for a while but eventually the guilt was too much for me and I had to take it out.

  • I don’t know where the phrase comes from, but one of my writing teachers used to say “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

  • Hmmm, I wouldn’t want to read a book with all new made up words and I wouldn’t want to read one with loads of cliches. But, some good familiar lines and a few new ones is a good mix. I say unless you are copying the whole way the original was used then it would be wrong. If you use it in your own way, to fit your own subject go with it. Egads, are you sure you aren’t making a mountain out of a molehill again (and I just used two things I’ve heard before with egads coming from The Music Man and well, I don’t know where the other started but I see it right here on your blog). See how easy it is to do and what is wrong with what I just used? Nothing as far as I can tell (or maybe I make molehills out of mountains ;) !!

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