Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Vincent van Gogh Taught Me About Plagiarism

Self Portrait with Felt Hat
Have you ever heard a comment that stopped you in your tracks? I recently asked an author friend what she was reading. She replied that she doesn't read when writing or editing for fear she'll plagiarize someone.

That stumped me.

For me, reading is akin to breathing - a physical necessity. I read all the time and usually have several books in play at once. I simply hadn't considered the possibility that because I read while editing or writing that someone else's work might end up in one of my books.

The Chambers Dictionary, New Ninth Edition, defines 'plagiarize' as: "to steal ideas or writings from another person and present them as one's own."

My friend's comment hung in the back of my mind. It worried me a bit until my husband and I spent the better part of a day in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. That was the first time I realized how much effort Vincent, arguably one of the finest artists in history, put into copying other people's art.

I adore Van Gogh's work. It's simultaneously soothing and uplifting to me. But Vincent van Gogh was a plagiarist. A blatant copyist. And you know what? That makes me respect him all the more.

Many people think Vincent was an out and out nutter (thanks to the whole ear incident and a few other odd events), but if there's one thing that Van Gogh understood, it was that he had much to learn as an artist.

The Courtesan (after Eisen)
He was mostly self-taught and used the works of painters he admired to explore their techniques, and eventually, to develop his own. Vincent greatly admired Jean-Francios Millet's style and copied at least 21 of Millet's paintings, adding his own influence through the use of color. He dabbled in the pointillist style of painting developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and made outright copies of Japanese prints by Hiroshige. All in the aid of furthering his own abilities, of developing his own style.

We treasure these copies, these attempts to imitate someone else's work just as much as we treasure Van Gogh's originals, such as Starry Night, The Potato Eaters, and the Sunflowers paintings. Vincent's copies are attributed as being 'after' a particular painter to credit the original artist. There is no doubt that Van Gogh was using the work of someone he admired to help develop his art rather than trying to pass the works off as his own.

But now we come to writers.

Hear me clearly: am I saying that plagiarism as an author is a good thing?

Absolutely not.

What am I saying? That reading the works of people I admire is crucial to how I develop my style, my technique, my ability to pace a plot, to grow a character, to write believable dialogue, to create stories that capture the imagination.

Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves (after Millet)
This is no different than a musician who listens to other musicians and hears and modifies a particular riff. Robert Johnson, the famous bluesman, recorded modified versions of several existing recordings such as Skip James' 22-20 Blues and Devil Got My Woman, changing them so much that they became his own. These in turn influenced groups such as the Rolling Stones, who further evolved this original blues style into the gritty rock 'n' roll sound they're famous for today.

The Lennie Tristano method of teaching jazz focused on singing solos by Lester Young and other jazz greats, note for note. Not so they could be reproduced note for note, but rather so the musician incorporated the style, the feeling of those tunes into their own music, and then used improvisation to make the music their own. 

While I'm editing, I deliberately read books by authors whose writing captivates me. Rather than being fearful that I'll plagiarize them, I'm hopeful that the qualities about their writing that I so admire will seep into my brain and influence how I write, not necessarily what I write.
Skull with Burning Cigarette

I'm grateful for my friend's comment about her fear of plagiarizing someone else's work. I'm equally grateful that we were in Amsterdam at the Van Gogh Museum not long after. Vincent taught me that studying the works of those we consider great, in an honest attempt to improve ourselves, can only help us mature, regardless of our art.

What about you? Do you find reading a source of inspiration while you write or edit, or is it a distraction?

photos taken by Gae-Lynn Woods at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


  1. LOVE to read while writing. Essential to keep yourself balanced between seeing something "fresh" - either a phrase or a new word - in an author's work, and your own work. Otherwise, I have found I get stale.

    1. I love the thought of reading to avoid going stale - that's exactly what I'm looking for when I read (right alongside being heartily entertained...). Thanks so much for stopping by, Meg.

  2. I heartily agree. I tend to get stale too, and love to read my favorite authors while writing. I wouldn't dream of copying them. Rather, I hope that some sort of inspiration osmosis will kick in.

    1. Osmosis - that's a perfect way of putting it, Maureen.

  3. If you read enough, all the influences sort of even out! That sounds facetious, but, well it is, but at the same time it isn't.

    1. That's a fantasic way to look at it, Helen. It's almost as if we're pouring all the great words and rhythms and feelings of our favorite writers into one big melting pot in our head. From that comes something new. I love it!

  4. I was very bad in writing dialogues, but then I started copying (for practice) long (winding) conversations/ dialogues by established writers, and the 'flow' of 'she/he said,' dialogues improved significantly. Yes, I agree with you: practice copying (not plagiarizing) can help one hone their craft.

    1. That's fascinating. A writing coach I know encourages her clients to do just what you've done: literally copy writers they admire. I've never done it but need to give it a try. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. I so enjoyed this Gae-Lynn, thanks for putting the discussion back in play. I firmly believe that you can't write if you don't read, and really encourage my memoir coaching clients to read memoir. We can discern what is ours and what is not, don't you think? Patti (and it's a pleasure to meet you. P)

    1. I agree, Patti, that we can discern what is ours and what is not. I think our 'voice' changes over time, or as we write in different genres, without losing our authentic style. It's lovely to meet you, too!