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?