Early in my literary life I was told by someone I respected (although I don’t remember whom) that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” I nodded solemnly. Sage wisdom.

I didn’t confess I had no idea what that meant.

Over the next few years I pondered the statement often, because I wanted to be a great writer. That was my one worldly ambition. Well, that and to find a fabulous woman to spend my life with.

One out of two ain’t bad.

Eventually I concluded the statement meant that to be a great writer, you had to have no conscience. How many thieves have a conscience, after all? If they did, they wouldn’t steal — unless they were hungry or similarly desperate. I wasn’t hungry or desperate.

That explanation also made sense in the cut-throat context of Big Publishing. Interest in books was waning. There was room for only so many writers. To be a great one — or at least one who sold books — you had to see everything, even the most sensitive, humiliating secrets about friends and family, as potential plot fodder. The embarrassing, the sordid, the cruel, the kinky — you stole that and used it for cold gain. The damage you did to the people you stole from, to your social life, and ultimately to your soul? Strictly collateral.

Nope. I wasn’t hungry or desperate enough. So I settled for becoming, as I’ve noted previously, a first-rate second-rate writer.

Which has been fine. In retrospect, I think realizing my dream would have made me a monster in more ways than a willingness to betray; I’d have descended into the arrogance of those for whom life has been easy. Failing at my one worldly ambition served as a continual reminder that my place was with those who struggled day-in, day-out to parlay modest talent and a strong work ethic into humdrum success.

Still, I never ceased mulling over the meaning of that maxim. Recently I decided to research it. Who actually said it? What was his or her intent? Was that intent the same as my interpretation?

Turns out nobody said it.

It’s a corruption of something T.S. Eliot wrote in 1921, in a book of poetry criticism called The Sacred Wood:

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 from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

So the intent has little to do with what I supposed. For Eliot, theft is an act of transmutation that refreshes both the stolen material and literary tradition. It’s imitation, i.e. borrowing, that’s the crime.

Wish I’d known that 35 years ago. Not that it would have made me a great writer. But it would have spared me a lot of angst back in my younger years.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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