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?