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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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She Walked Just Like You

How many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?


One to screw it in. The other to say it was his idea.


When does being inspired by something cross the line into stealing. If nothing is original, what can you claim as your own?  What is yours, mine, ours? We like things because they remind us of things we like, unless they are derivative. Rip off! I know a poet who described an idea for a poem to some of his poet friends over a beer. One went home that night and wrote it up. They never spoke again. Would they have written the same poem? What is the worth of an idea? That was my red wheel barrow! My white chickens! Glaze! Glaze! Sometimes when my husband and I hear something or see something that is a really good image or snatch of dialogue, we’ll say, “I’m using that,” as if we are children calling the plate with more macaroni or the tv clicker. And then we fight over who saw or heard it first. Sometimes,  I’ll say, “take it,” as if I’m the big shit. As if I don’t need that line or any line because I have more  lines than I can possibly use. Steal from me. Do me a favor.

Thou shalt not steal. Agree? Disagree? Define steal.

86 Responses

  1. Wrote this a long time ago after break up with an ex – also a writer. I was in my Dorothy Parker wannabe phase. New Yorker ( cough) never published it. So it’s yours. ( To be read with Parkerish “acerbic” tone.)

    The End of a Literary Affair. (dahling)

    If everything you write
    Is an act of sublimation
    I leave you to your words
    I need more stimulation

    Art is no substitute for love or life
    And so I go and leave you
    To your… paper wife

    And when you’re restless and alone
    Do not use the telephone
    And when it’s dark
    And when it’s cold
    And when you wake and you’re old

    Remember that your art came first
    That I loved you at your worst
    And when you use a line I wrote :

  2. Stealing is when you take ownership of something that doesn’t belong to you — in the arts the reason it doesn’t belong to you is usually because you didn’t make it. And it really pisses people off when you get paid for it when the person who made it should. Thou shalt not do that because it’s douchey, a word I’ve been trying to work into my writing all day, although I’m still not sure how to spell it.

    In the arts, taking an idea someone mentions and making something of it in film or poetry or fiction is not stealing. The value there is in what you make of it. Not in the idea. (Boy meets girl, girl/boy doesn’t like girl/boy, girl/boy pretends to be someone else, girl/boy is charmed, girl/boy reveals himself, girl/boy is pissed off but she/he decides she/he still loves him. That’s an idea. The script for the film structured along those lines is every movie ever made by Julia Roberts and that is the thing you can’t steal. Even if you wanted to.)

    I think this issue gets more heated the more money’s at stake. So George Harrison gets in trouble for ripping off He’s So Fine, but if I posted a song on youtube that used the same tune and asked people to pay me .10 for it, believe me, nobody would care, because I can’t sing worth shit and, really, who’d pay me for that?

    And then there’s sampling and parody. if you make something new out of a piece of art, you’re totally fine. But I wonder — if you have a performance piece at the Guggenheim that basically involves getting people to pay ten bucks to watch Notting Hill, well, is that art or is that stealing?

  3. I screw in all the light bulbs. I demand the clicker. The glaze and the red and the whole wheelbarrow are mine mine mine, but only if they really are. I don’t need somebody else’s line. I’m a selfish wench, but I don’t care for a thief. I don’t get the stealing attraction.

  4. If you were Catholic, you would have to KNOW it “belonged” to someone else and then decide to take it anyway, accepting the consequences freely. I get all tangled up in words like derivative and redundant. We only have 26 letters to work with. Anyway, I emailed you about this months ago. Is your idea stolen or derivative or redundant? Since I share so very freely of myself, it is none of the above, to my dismay.

  5. Disagree. Writing is theft.

    Also, ‘A Snatch of Dialogue’ is the sequel to The Vagina Monologues.

  6. If the directive was good enough to make the Big 10, it’s good enough for me. But perhaps I am too darn simple:

    It didn’t deter Mr. You-Know-Who-You-Are from lifting whole sentences and descriptive text from my Op-Ed and running them in his column a few days later as his own brilliant conclusions. I blame the newspaper as much as him. And then there is the contractor who attempted to publish a book with my cabinet detail featured as their clever idea (thank goodness for contracts that spell out intellectual property rights). Geez! And we generously refer to such humans a rip-off ARTISTS – as if this flaw is a talent?

    OK, deep breaths…

  7. What is stealing? Unethical

  8. We don’t “own” anything. Go talk to your favorite god when it’s time to die. Tell him, her, or it what you own. See what kind of laugh you get.

    Hey, here’s a joke I made up. It’s mine. I own it. Right here and now I claim it. I stick my little flaggy pole in it and say, “Mine mine mine! No touch!” Okay, here it is:

    How many attorneys does it take to change a light bulb?

    None. Attorneys don’t change light bulbs. They instruct their assistants to e-mail a work order to the property manager, who forwards it to a building engineer, who logs it in the scheduling database and gets to it when it comes up next in the queue. That’s how we do it in America. That’s why we’re so rich and powerful. Fuck yeah! USA!

    Yeah, the lawyer I work for didn’t think it was funny, either. Steal it if you dare. That joke and five dollars will get you a five-cent cup of coffee at Starbucks. Tell ’em Ishmael sent you.

    • Sadly, there is another lawyer, who works for the building owner, that reviewed the tenant manual and added a requirement that no one but the building engineers or similarly trained technicians are authorized to replace light bulbs in any fixture hard-wired into the building utilities. And don’t get me started on the regs for the ‘proper disposal’ of fluorescent tubes!

  9. Defining “steal.” That’s the hard part. There’s this blog I read, and the author sometimes refers to her readers as “kittens” in a sardonic kind of way. I liked the effect, so I used it myself because I thought I’d heard it other places, like it was common domain and I didn’t have to include a citation. But lately I’ve started wondering if maybe it is “her thing” more than anyone else’s, and I should stay away from it. Then again, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form a flattery…right?

    • I call the boys (sorry men) I live with ‘children’ in a patronising yet loving way. I say things like ‘Good night children’ etc when addressing the group of them. When one of them called the rest of us ‘children’ in the same way I had a natural emotional response of anger. That was my word.

  10. I was reading a blog and she said to take any ideas she offered out there as she had too many, and if you could make something of them to be her guest.

    I thought the concept was wonderful. Yet…

    I think it’s like jazz. There’s a song, everyone knows the song, but it’s nothing compared to the riff musicians make of it. That’s jazz. That’s blogs.

    Then there is other music whether rock, or pop, or classical or what have you. It has a specific structure, and when someone “samples” it, it very clearly is a song you know. It’s someone else’s. Now sampling is acceptable but they have to pay the original artist.

    With words, with ideas, you can riff off of someone else’s idea, but the theft is when you claim it as your own.

    Poetry must be impossible because there are so few words you’re dealing with, and the order is everything. A fragment of thought would be theft.

    In a novel, unless the idea was given to you freely, it’s not yours. No court would convict you, but you’d know it was wrong. Unfortunately, some people don’t have the same ethical standard of measurement.

  11. Not to be a party pooper, but who came up with the word The. I, personally, think he stole it. I want to kick his ass because I, without anyone giving me any shit, want to use it. That bastard. That bastard.

    • The human language is not only not a palguarization of something we are yet to understand, but, my question, is why would consider that word? I guess this is where we separate the the good from the bad, the greedy from the cowards. I say cowards because I have a stinking believe, through listening, that some folks thinks words will keep them alive forever. I wish I could put a fear angle on that, but what a bore to live forever. What a bore, my god. I wish I had some music for this one, but I don’t. I’m going back to my hide-away and write my strange story. Creaky, is what I would call it. Good luck, everyone. Please, someone write me a god book to pass this time.

  12. shakespeare plagiarized.

  13. There’s a line in a short story of mine which I honestly can’t tell if I stole from Paul Auster or not. It sounds like Paul Auster but I’m not going through all his novels to see if I can find it. The line remains and the story is about to be published. I hope I don’t get sued.

  14. I recently read the beginning of a hugely popular novel that has a setting almost the same as one part of mine and the things that were happening were so similar I wondered if I had somehow stolen it from her telepathically. Which sucked. And made me cry a little. Also, this one time (at band camp) some random guy told me about this idea he had for a movie and it was really, really good and I keep wanting to steal it to write a novel with the same premise but I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s just wrong.

  15. I once borrowed a friend’s beautiful eyes and set them in a story. While my character was not the woman she walked like her and carried many of her uncertainties. The story was published in a fine book. I forgot about my starting point until I heard my friend’s husband was incensed. In my story he’d become an Ivorian hotel manager who watched his wife follow a famous woman photographer into the desert.
    I felt like a thief.

  16. I think you know when something is not your own. The outside world might not catch on but you know and slowly that knowledge manifests itself. Maybe it’s something small like a pimple that begins to fester or maybe it’s something painful like an ulcer or maybe it’s something permanent, deep inside you. Being inspired is an act of creativity. Thievery is an act of sabotage.

  17. I started out being really grabby, mine mine mine! Don’t touch that thing I said/wrote/thought, it’s MINE!

    Now — well, if it’s mine it’s MINE, but fewer things truly are mine. For a big instance, a very funny story I told on my parents, that my sister STOLE and put in her blog, attributing to “a sibling.” Oh, boy, BIG FIGHT NOT SPEAKING MADE UP STILL MAD. (I was going to share it with other family members, but they all read it in her blog before I could see them.)

    But other than things like that, ideas belong to the universe and we all interpret in our own way. I am extremely grateful to Terry Pratchett for summing it up in a way I can truly appreciate, which I forget right now, but anyway, I got some ideas from him, but he got HIS ideas from Shakespeare.

  18. The Stylistics – wow. Thanks for the memories. Betcha By Golly Wow.

    I remember someone blogged about this before (Betsy, did you steal this post idea? ‘Fess up.) and I found this quote at the time:

    “One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

    from an essay that TS Eliot wrote – you can read more about it all here:


    (It’s not stealing if you attribute!)

  19. My sister-in-law once said to me: “Don’t write about my family – they’re mine.”

  20. In high school (over fifty years ago), I stole a $.99 45rpm record from a little music store run by a very sweet old man. I’d bought a ton of records there, but that one day, I went with a friend who’d been swiping records for years by putting her three-ring-binder on the display counter and slipping them in between the sheets of lined paper. It’s so easy she said. I did it. It was easy. The record was The Great Pretender by the Platters.

    When I got that record home, it started haunting me. I didn’t even play it, just looked at it as though it was a trillion dollar bill. I left it in my binder so I could return it the next day. That night, the old man left his car on the sand, walked into Lake Champlain, and drowned himself because his business was tanking. The store was locked and never opened again.

    What do you do in a situation like that? You try to return that record for the rest of your life by giving to churches you don’t belong to, overtipping, picking up the check when it’s not your turn.

    Most of all, you never steal another thing in your whole life. You never know when the person you stole it from is going to walk into a lake and drown himself before you can say you’re sorry.

    • Wow. Just, wow.

    • Jesus, Bonnie.

    • Please, please remember, too, that you did not insert the key into the ignition nor drive that car. It’s not possible to shoulder the responsibility for another’s actions, but as you have learned, you can direct your efforts to support, encourage or even save some one else. Allow yourself that comfort.

    • Bonnie, thank you for telling us that. I’m with Karen; I also don’t believe you bear any responsibility for the old man’s suicide, but his unfortunate death was unintentionally a benefit for you, and through you, for others. What dies in nature that doesn’t give life to something else? You could have gone down a very different road if you had been allowed to get away with it. I somehow doubt that the others who had successfully stolen from him many times previously felt any remorse.

      p.s. Can I borrow that story and post it on my Facebook page? I’m not being flip; I think it could influence a lot of young people. At the very least, you should send that story to every advice columnist in the US, from there to be stuck on millions of refrigerators, cork boards, and school lockers. It’s got a viral quality to it, for sure. (And if you don’t let me borrow it, then I’ll have to steal it)

    • You said a lot in that little story, beautifully.

    • So sad. File under: you can’t make this stuff up.

    • What a nightmare. I am so sorry.

    • Bonnie, I just read this out loud to my husband and barely survived the reading. Bless you.

  21. This sort of thing is much more straightforward in non-fiction.

    To quote Tom Leher’s “Lobachevsky”, about advice given to a young mathematician who wishes to publish:

    Let no one else’s work evade your eyes
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
    So don’t shade your eyes
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
    Only be sure always to call it please “research”

    Doing this with fiction (which generally leaves off the bibliography) tends to get one slapped down hard by readers and fellow authors alike, ala Cassie Edwards.

    And, I think, rightly so.


    * “I am never forget the day my first book is published. Every chapter I stole from somewhere else. Index I copy from old Vladivostok telephone directory. This book was sensational! Pravda – well, Pravda said: perzhnavisk. It stinks. But Izvestia! Izvestia said: parachnavor. It stinks. Metro-Goldwyn-Moskva buys movie rights for six million rubles, changing title to “The Eternal Triangle,” with Ingrid Bergman playing part of hypotenuse.”

  22. Do not try this at home. I co-wrote a marriage/infertility memoir with my husband, alternating chapters. We’d share our pieces in progress for feedback and to try to dovetail them, but my descriptions and scenes would work their way into his psyche and show up in his revision. “How do you know I didn’t think of that first?” he would ask indignantly, when I had my older chapter to show him if I wanted to (there is an art to sustaining a good marriage). When he used a chapter title of mine and sincerely seemed to have no recollection of having seen it before, I stopped showing him my work until he was done with his half of the book.

    Happy to report that the marriage is intact a decade later. The book is out of print.

  23. Intellectual property rights are debated ad nauseum on Mises. org.

    Cassie Edwards’ books are still on the store shelves and there is an entire website illustrating the lifted parts.

  24. Someone stole one of my ideas and used it verbatim. Then she argued the process by which she had come upon it. Yeah, in our conversation about an article I was writing. My consolation is her book sucked and tanked, but I have plenty more ideas. She’s writing another book and got in touch with me, poking around for my opinion. All I could think was are you fucking kidding me? This time I didn’t let my ego loose and played stupid. Hmm… I have an idea if anyone is interested!

    • I hate liars more than I hate thieves.

      • Is playing stupid a form of lying or a form of theft?

      • Tetman– I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Didn’t even think of that. Considering my level of self loathing, it has to be lying.

      • The only thing I’ve ever stolen is candy when I was 7 years old and that was because a man told my friend and I that the penny candies in the middle of the store were free and we believed him. I must have ripped off an entire dime’s worth. Oh, I’ve also flirted my way into another trip up the ski lift before the free time to check the snow conditions was ending so I didn’t have to pay for a lift ticket.

  25. The worst thing is to steal from yourself, i.e., rehash without realizing or caring that you’ve already written the same thing, and then not sufficiently tweaking it to give the impression of newness.

  26. Stealing is awesome. No one writes about the same thing the same way. Oh except stealing from yourself, as TP says, that is problematic.

  27. Stealing is a concept invented by overly clever apes who are scared shitless by life because they know it ends in death. To claim possession of anything is an attempt to deny the existence of death. I do it all the fucking time. It’s an attempt to steal death’s power from death.

    Writing’s the same. All of us who write, it’s our way of saying “fuck you” to death. A way of stealing at least some of death’s power from death and snatching more life than the average living material entity. But death doesn’t care. It has its own agenda. Our attempts to outfox it are the illusions we create, the shadows we cast on our cave walls to distract us from the truth difficult for most to bear–that we’re born to die and the only meaning to life is the meaning we create–that is, the meaning we steal from meaninglessness, the life we steal from death.

    Somebody pass me a joint, it’s going to be a long fucking day and I could use a little meaning.

    • Wow, dude. I think you just might know what you’re talking about. Of course, who am I to agree and therefore give your story relevance? It is, indeed, a strange world we live in, and people, in general, love to hear stories about life and people. What a strange creature we are. I was listening today, It’s Friday now, I go back and comment on Betsy’s little free Master’s degree, but I heard today, on NPR, that the Voyager probe we sent out in the ’70’s is still sending back info. To me, that is something. The really, and not fake, interesting part of is is that the vacuum of space is far more a pure vacuum than we could ever create here on earth. The scientist, I forget his name, said that the only time the Voyager would encounter debris is when it was near a planet. And, it would take about 40,000 light years, years it takes light to travel, for you novices, turn on your kitchen light and then think a hundred times that, to get nearer to a sun that is not the sun we bask in. Go figure. I love that stuff. Anyway, writing? Fuck that.

    • But even if property is an illusion, stealing is not. If what is in our possession for our own use is not our property, how much less so are anyone else’s possessions?

      And if we’re born simply to die, why is that? Just because? That’s no answer at all, even if it sounds good. Who says so anyway?

      Nobody can tell me I ought not demand answers of life and nobody can tell me that the question “why?” is meaningless. Even if all other meaning is merely created (and if that were true, then it wouldn’t be meaning at all, but whim and fancy), the simple fact that we even ask “why?” is enough to imply that there is some meaning that is beyond our power to create. That “why?” is a cry of hunger. We can tell ourselves there is no bread, no meaning, on which to feed, but is our hunger then an illusion? No. Hunger predicates food, and the search for meaning predicates meaning. We can stuff ourselves with sawdust, and call it food to make ourselves feel better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t starving, nor does it mean that real nourishment doesn’t exist somewhere, even if all we’ll ever know of it is the rumbling of our empty bellies.

      • stealin my shit from me
        dont make it yrs
        makes it stolen

        — Ntozake Shange, “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf”

  28. My mentor John Rechy talks about the guilt of creating lives on the page that will outlive the lives they model. The survivor guilt of the creator, stealing souls for stories. That, as August said, is the profound truth of what we do and it is graver than plagiarism and a weighty bargain.

  29. In grade nine, I wrote a story that the English teacher read out loud to the class.

    A little jerk named Wade, after hearing the story, said you me, “You copied it, didn’t you?”

    Now this was 1980-something and I had proudly typed the thing up on my mom’s work computer and made a photocopy of the printout to hand in. I thought he was complimenting me on my use of the new technology, so I proudly said, “Yes!”

    Thinking back, he did seem impressed with what appeared to be my brazen admission of guilt.

    • Haha! Reminds me of the time in primary school when one of the idiot boys came up and asked me if I was a virgin. I didn’t know what that was, but I thought he was talking about astrology (Virgo/virgin – close!), so as a Gemini I scoffed, said “no” and walked away. Ooooops. Though I wonder how I knew so much about astrology but not what a virgin was. Product of a hippy household, clearly!

  30. Stealing in art is a tricky concept for sure but I think that if you have a friendship with another artist, you ought to know that if they share an idea–trying to make it your own will be a betrayal of their trust. It’s up to you which matters more. I happen to think people who cherish art over their friends and loved ones are assholes.

  31. Ideas are fair game, exact words a different story…

  32. I just saw “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.” You should see it if you haven’t. Basquiat took everything, stole nothing, and returned a radically new thing. He’s an artist whose work–whose very life–hits on the subject under consideration. And it’s very inspiring.

    Yes, I found that joint I was asking about earlier.

    • No offense, but I think that’s what fucked him also. And I swear, I am not trying to insult you. He was too young and too naive about drugs. Man, oh, man. Any kind of drug for someone with such abandonment is a disaster waiting to happen. We, as a people, are so disorganized. Jeff, out.

      • And, of course, always something or another. The word I am very much in love with right now, through Dickens, is Stave. Be good, Y’all!

      • Ok, that is 10. But who’s counting?

      • Yeah, I see Jeff’s name and don’t even bother reading. Poor sick bastard.

      • You always say: Jeff, out.

        Yet, you’re never out.

        Lucky us.

      • I read him, especially when he’s responding to something I posted–it seems the polite thing to do, and while I’m not nice, I can rise to polite, even if I’m the only one who knows (until I go bragging about it under other auspices)–but I can’t help but wonder how old he is. Jeff, how old are you? And don’t bullshit us, man.

  33. I had to watch this for a Writing Across the Curriculum course and we’ve been having the same lively debate that your comments have been having in that class.


  34. Years ago, I submitted a teleplay to Star Trek: The Next Generation about the Enterprise being hurtled into a galaxy so many light years away that they could never get back to their home galaxy within their life times. My feeling was that Picard and crew spent so much time in Federation space dealing with familiar life forms that the show had lost some of the freshness of the original series. The original series had heart in spite of its often lousy plot lines, cheesy sets, and even cheesier special effects. ST: The Next Generation had great sets, good special effects but often lacked the heart and soul of the original (in my opinion). Anyway, back to the point, not long after the producers rejected my teleplay they announced plans for Star Trek Voyager about a ship (Voyager) being hurtled into a galaxy so many light years away that they could never get back to their home galaxy within their life times. I DO NOT (I’ll repeat that). I DO NOT think they “stole” my idea. The person responsible for developing ST Voyager probably never even saw my teleplay. Sometimes many people just come up with the same idea and I’m not really sure, as Betsy posits, that ideas can really be stolen. After all, most writers know about the “seven basic plots.” We’re all telling some variation of stories that have already been told. I don’t concern myself with such things. Every once in a while, I’ll attend a conference or seminar where some writer ask a question about how they can copyright their material. These writers will often share the material they’re so concerned about and it is invariably true that the material is so, so bad, so godawful, that no one would dream of stealing it. Good writers just write and let their writing take care of business. Plagiarism is wrong. Idea stealing? I don’t really know if it can really be done.

  35. There are laws about Intellectual Property rights being debated in Congress even as we speak. Be very afraid. A classic Keynes vs. von Mises scenario.

  36. And then there is the attitude of David Shields in REALITY HUNGER: “Reality can’t be copyrighted.” The postmodern novel “steals” characters and plots on a regular basis. “Found prose” is part of more experimental literature already. With the Internet mixing things up, protecting originality is probably a lost cause. Plus I have a brilliant idea for incorporating large chunks of a work published over 300 years ago into my historical wip….

  37. Hah! My wife and I call dibs on stuff all the time. She’s a fiction writer and I’m a poet…what gives?

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