In which I rip off more great writing.

In my mind, this is what all British Writers looks like.

A British Writer blowing smoke-quotes.

In They say this is great writing, I wrote about how I intentionally ripped off the opening of Tom Sawyer several times. A comment on that post by Valerie Moone made me realize that there is another piece of great writing I ripped off unintentionally.

Here is my unintentionally ripped-off opening (if you’d like, you can read the full story here):

A little girl was walking down the street when she noticed a wall approaching. This was no ordinary wall, like the kind made of brick or stone which stands firmly in place to keep people from going straight ahead. This was an inside-the-house kind of wall that seemed to have gotten outside the house and was now heading straight towards her.

Can you guess where I ripped that off from? Go ahead, guess. I’ll give you a minute.

*takes sip of coffee*

Okay, by now you either know or need me to tell you. Here’s the opening I ripped off:

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Mine is not bad, I think. But it doesn’t compare to Tolkien’s. So I shouldn’t be in too much trouble. And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

But when I ripped off the opening of Tom Sawyer, which I did many times, I knew I was doing it.

My ripping off of The Hobbit was different. I’ve read the book many times, and I love the way Tolkien writes. In fact, I love the way most British writers write. I prefer them to American writers. And when I was writing my story about the wall, I was aware I was ripping off a British style of writing. Or at least what I perceived to be one.

I just didn’t realize I was ripping off a particular opening of a particular book by a particular British Writer.

So here’s the difference, I think. Yes, I did read Tom Sawyer, but only once, and as a child. So it wasn’t much of an influence on me. I ripped off its opening because I’d read that it was a great opening. I didn’t know myself whether it was or not, I just knew someone had said it was. But I knew myself that Tolkien’s was great. I’ve read Tolkien over and over, as a child and as an adult. I love him. I can use my thees and thous properly because of him. His words are in my bones.

That is why I ripped him off without even meaning to. I can’t not rip him off.

The lesson, I guess, is, well…what is the lesson?

Maybe that we write what we love?

19 thoughts on “In which I rip off more great writing.

    • Yes, those guys are much respected. I like plenty of American authors myself. Salinger and Paul Auster are two of my favorites. But their prose lacks the wit and charm, and often the lyrical quality that I find in my favorite British writers.

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  1. Yah, we write what we love, what we feel – even if that’s inspired by some long-past remembrance. By the way, for what it’s worth, I love your re-write of the Hobbit opening – that moving wall is a priceless image. I will probably end up ripping it off…

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  2. Yes, it’s like sleeping with the windows open, to let whatever’s blowing around outside into your room, into your head. Or not quite. But I haven’t had enough coffee. On a further tangent, reminds me of George Harrison getting sued for “My Sweet Lord,” as ripping off a (?) motown tune. Props to you for turning me on to a new Dylan tune too! Hadn’t heard that one. Great week, have one.

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  3. its just another case of that golden writing rule of ‘write what you know’ but ripping off unintentionally, I don’t think that sounds right,I say this knowing full well i’m an amateur to this world of English and writing so yes i could be wrong.Meticulous ripping of this kind can not be or at the very least should not be ,the language is the same but the stories and storytelling should and will always be different,right?
    But if you can recount another man’s storytelling and story perfectly even unknowingly then who tells your story?I find it unsettling that the construction and deconstruction of words syllables and letters into two different stories by two different authors(good ones at that) can be so similar and so reflective of each other?(but like i said i could be wrong)

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    • Well, I think what I’m confessing too is the copying of technique more so than the words or the story. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to spend the time telling or retelling someone else’s story. On the one hand, I’m not interested in that, and on the other, I would be embarrassed to do that. But technique is different. If I wanted to play a sport well, I might intentionally copy an athlete’s style. If I wanted to write well, I might (and have) intentionally copied a writer’s style. But what I’m saying here is that I surprised myself by copying another writer’s style without necessarily meaning too, and without even realizing I was doing it. It’s a bit disconcerting. I thought I was being pretty clever at the time, but as it turns out I wasn’t.

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