My friend, Pendard, called me tonight to vent. The reason? He’d gone to a writing workshop with two new friends, one of whom got defensive about every single suggestion. This person could not accept the fact that any changes needed to be made to the piece at all. The worst part was that there were elements of the story that Pendard really liked and inspired a similar story that he wanted to write himself. So, he called me to vent about how maddening it was to workshop with this writer as well as to lament the fact that he would never be able to write the story sparked in him, because it would be plagiarism.
Would it? I asked.
I asked him what elements he found interesting. The basic concept was one that has not only already been done in several mediums, but it’s one that Pendard had mentioned wanting to write years ago (he’d forgotten). So, I told him that he shouldn’t feel bad about writing something inspired by her idea, because not only was the concept one that she’d likely gleaned from elsewhere, but it was one that he’d mentioned wanting to write a while back. Also, writers are inspired by (steal from) each other all the time. Also, it isn’t about the basic idea, but how well it’s executed. Also, if the writer can’t take criticism, this story is never going to see the light of day anyway.
I could hear his disappointment in me as he said, “So basically, Ms. Zuckerberg, if Facebook was their idea, they would’ve invented Facebook?”
Pendard and I have talked about The Social Network, and I remember having many conversations about that movie, because I was apparently one of the only people who saw Zuckerberg portrayed sympathetically in that film, and who didn’t think he was so entirely an asshole.
Here is where I draw my moral line: if the idea is a general concept that’s already been used, or has likely been used elsewhere, using it isn’t a douchebag move. In the case of Facebook (and I know the film differs from true events), Zuckerberg was hired by guys to work on code for a social networking site, and he improved on their idea, so he created his own. Should he have continued to take their money and waste their time when he had no intention of following through? No. And that was his douchebag move. Improving on their idea that was already derivative of already existing social media platforms was not.
What bothered me when watching that was the thought that, had Zuckerberg not gone on to make billions, the guys that sued him probably wouldn’t have cared. It wasn’t the morality of the issue that was spurring them to action. It wasn’t about their pet project, their “baby”, being stolen. It wasn’t about honor amongst computer programmers. It was about the money. So, when Zuckerberg (played wonderfully by Jesse Eisenberg) says “If Facebook was your idea, you would’ve invented Facebook,” I was all “Hell. Yes.”
How does this apply to writing?
Well, in the case of Pendard, he clarified that he not only latched on to this writer’s larger concepts, but to specific characters and specific relationships. Once that was clarified, I said “Well, yeah, in that case, that would definitely be stealing.” So, he’s going to be writing the story as a writing exercise to get it out of his system and never do anything with it. Fine. But even after that distinction, he seemed to continue to have trouble with my position on the subject, and said (only) half-jokingly “Well, I’m never going to share any of my good ideas in a writing workshop with you ever again!”
And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this all night. Because I genuinely believe that there are circumstances in which it’s okay to write something that riffs on someone else’s idea. But at the same time, I try really hard to have integrity and to be a Woman of Her Word. The idea that someone might not trust me in a creative context really shook me up. Naturally, I had to examine this via blogging.
Two things that need explaining:
1) This bias might make me an even bigger asshole than vaulting off someone else’s idea, but whether or not I respect someone as a writer makes a difference in where I draw my line. I remember saying to Pendard something like “I would never write something inspired by something you’ve written like that,” and it has nothing to do with the fact that we’re friends. The reason is that Pendard is an amazing and disciplined writer, and I believe without question that he will be published, and that many, if not all, the ideas he shares with me will be out in the world in some form someday. I see that as inevitable. We’re in a writing workshop with two other friends, and I feel the same about their work. If I genuinely believe that your talent/ambition/discipline will allow you to make writing your life, I am less likely to be interested in riffing on anything of yours, and more interested in creating something to completely distinguish myself from you. However, not knowing this other writer at all, and just knowing that the writer is the kind of person who thinks their work needs no work…that not only lessens my opinion of them, but also makes me think that their work is never going to be seen, because this person is going to be hell for any editor to work with. And if I can think of a way to salvage a kernel of a good idea, and you’re going to refuse any and all suggestions…? I might.
2) Years ago, I shared an early version of my story, “The Sandbox” (which can now be found in On the Ground Floor), with Pendard, asking him for notes. He gave me his notes, and told me he liked it by saying that he was inspired to play with it and write his own version, and that he meant that as a compliment, because when he was in high school he and his friends would do that with each others’ stories when they liked them.
If you’ve read “The Sandbox”, you know that it’s a story about a political situation using the metaphor of kids playing in a sandbox. Now, if my story had inspired him to write a story about politics using children as a metaphor, I wouldn’t have had a problem with that at all. I mean, it’s not as if I was the first person to do that. If he wrote a story using the sandbox as well as characters like mine…that would’ve made me angry.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say with all of this. This is how I feel about things now, but it could change. Basically, I’d love to hear from the writers out there about where they draw their lines when it comes to inspiration/borrowing/stealing/homage, particularly pre-publication. I’m not talking about reading something in a book/magazine then trying to pass it off as your own. I’m talking about the ideas we’re exposed to every day when we associate with other writers. When is it a riff, or inspiration, and when is it plagiarism, and is any of it OK? I’m still trying to figure it out. All I know is that I’d like very much to not be an asshole.