The Writer as Thief

Once, I had a painter boyfriend who used me as a model—a second-story paint studio flooded with light, one stool in the middle, and endless hours in a warm sun. He must have painted some four or five canvases, flowing long dresses, my hair twisted up on some. I don’t know where any of those portraits are today, or even if they exist, and the whole idea of them rests uneasily.

Decades later, I hired a painter to render images of my boys. She came, took lots of photos, went to her studio, and painted. The pictures turned out well and hang still in the house. But a year or so after that, I came across my own image done by her, big as life, in a show she was doing downtown, throngs people looking.

From her photo archive, she had constructed a portrait of me, and there it was on her very yellow wall. Shocked? Yes. But how irritated could I be with her? Didn’t I, too, draw freely at the well?

The writer is always on the take. He needs information, impressions, answers to his questions. He needs to observe, understand. And when his cup is full, he retreats to his hidey-hole and works to create something fresh and new. But in the process, has he taken something that belongs to someone else? Even if subtle: an image, say, a character trait, a bit of someone’s personal history spun for his own good?

How to stay a writer and minimize the effects of being a thief?  For me, two rules help.

First, I ask.

Sure, I’d rather just sit here and sip my coffee and press PUBLISH whenever I feel like it, but if it involves you, say, even if only sort of, kind of, I’d have to check first, make sure you won’t feel ambushed, or robbed, or betrayed. I might even want to verify some facts. And I might too, depending upon the circumstances, seek a definitive blessing to proceed.

Next—and the harder of the two—I strive for clarity.

This is an intricate subject, involving everything from the quotidian mechanics of a decent sentence to the larger questions of science and law. But certainly, and at a minimum, we are well served with an arm’s length perspective and a super sharp pair of ruthlessly wielded pruning shears.

Photo credits: thief – burglaralarm.me.uk

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