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Stealing from Yourself

Most bruce
By Bruce W. Most

As I writer, I’ve long advocated stealing.

Many of you probably are already familiar with a garden variety of authorial theft: research. Whether you’re writing a magazine article or essay or a novel, you draw on the writing of others. You combine their research with your own original research (interviews, observations, personal experiences) and you produce something fresh and original, a work that expands beyond what came before you. The only rule is that you artfully disguise your theft so it’s not plagiarism, but something that blends naturally into your own work, that gives it depth.

But what I want to consider here is a less well known variety of theft: stealing from yourself.

Let me give you a couple of examples. In the early 1980s, I wrote some magazine articles on the problem of cattle theft-rustlers stealing cattle as they did the 1880s, only with hand-held radios, ATVs, and tractor-trailer rigs. The magazine articles grew out of the fact a sister-in-law lives on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. I did the requisite work you always do for an article: I read previously published material (there wasn’t a lot, as this was not a topic that had been written about much) and used it as background to gather and conduct fresh interviews for my articles.

But the life of my published articles didn’t end there. Twenty-five years later (you don’t have to do the math; let’s just say, I’ve been a professional writer for well over 30 years), I’ve drawn on those old articles for a murder mystery I’m writing that’s set in Wyoming ranch country and that centers on…cattle rustling. I dug up my old notes (never, never throw writing away) and used them for background, plot ideas, characters, settings, and so on. I also stole from work I’ve published on old-fashioned brandings.

Of course, I’ve augmented my old work by reading the numerous articles that have appeared since then (don’t you love the Internet!). And I’ve added original research, visiting ranching country many times and watching ranchers work. I’ve harassed my poor brother-in-law with countless questions, and I’ve interviewed branding inspectors.

I committed a similar form of theft with one of my two published murder mysteries about a bail bondswoman named Ruby Dark. The key plot element in one of the books dealt with the missing in action from Vietnam. This was a subject I was quite familiar with, having written a newsletter in the early seventies for the California organization that started the POW/MIA bracelets, and having published a couple of freelance articles back then on the topic. More than twenty years after that experience, I drew heavily on that work for the novel. (Ask Margaret Coel about this practice; she spun her nonfiction work on the Arapahos into a best-selling murder mystery series.)

Cross-Pollinating

Perhaps a better word than stealing is cross-pollinating, though it doesn’t have that titillating ring to it. We use something from our earlier research and writing to help new writing flower. I don’t mean simply rehashing a topic in a slightly different version, as nonfiction writers are wont to do.

I mean creating a whole new plant.

I suppose this comes fairly easy for me because while many of you specialize in a particular form of writing or a particular area, I’ve lead a rather eclectic writing career. My roots come from journalism, and certainly my bread-and-butter has been nonfiction, particularly magazine articles (on topics ranging from travel and science to sports and personal finance). But I’ve also written press releases, video scripts, brochures, newsletters, and white papers. I’ve long edited a financial planning journal and I ghost wrote a self-help book. I’ve published two mystery novels and sold a third that was never published (we won’t talk about the ones that never even sold).

I’ve also written a play that was selected for a public reading by a Denver theatre company, and which I hope to get produced once I get around to rewriting it. The germination of that play also illustrates the value of stealing from yourself.

I’ve long gone to live theater and I’ve listened to playwrights speak at CAL luncheons over the years. I’d become intrigued with the idea of writing a play, but a good idea had never captured me (whereas, I’m floating in ideas for novels). One day I was conducting research for a series of brochures I was writing on the how families can cope financially when they have a family member who is a compulsive gambler. I was reading a brief anecdote in a book about a family that lost its family business because of the debt created by a compulsive gambler in the family. When I read the paragraph I literally said aloud in my office, “That’s my play!”

Who could imagine that writing about personal finance would spark an idea for a full-length play about the corrosive consequences of trying to rescue the people we love from their own destructive behavior!

The Variety of CAL

My experiences with my play hits on my final point about stealing and cross-pollinating. One of the qualities I most like about the Colorado Authors’ League is its eclecticism. We have writers working in a wide variety of genres and forms. The idea of writing a play never really started in me until I listened to playwrights speak at CAL luncheons. You never know where a good idea or valuable tool or inspiration will come from, whether in regular research or from your own writing or from fellow writers who toil in an entirely different world than you.

Take one of the CAL luncheon programs this past spring, which dealt with writing about nature. Now I don’t write articles or essays or poetry about nature, and I doubt I ever will. But I sometimes write about nature in my novels. The land the ranchers in my cattle-rustling novel have grown up on and depend on for their livelihood is part of their very breath. It is a central theme in the novel, a major element of the plot, and a character, if you will. So I stole (oops, drew on) some valuable ideas at that program about how to write about nature, in a completely different context than was presented.

Who knows where your next gems of wisdom and sparks of ideas may lurk. So get out there and start stealing!

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