Beg, Borrow, Steal

by | Apr 2, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

I’ve never written down my recipe for salmon confit, not because I want to guard a secret ingredient but because I worry that it’s not really mine–it’s adapted from Samin Nosrat’s recipe for tuna confit, which I got from her awesome cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. 

The procedure is the same, but my version shares only 3 out of 7 of her ingredients: salt, olive oil, and lemon zest. Beyond the choice of fish, I sub in different aromatics that better complement salmon (and that are more to my taste). Instead of garlic, dried red pepper, and bay leaves, I use fennel seed, juniper berries, and rose petals. 

So is it my recipe? (Side note: Is it a recipe at all if it isn’t written down?)  Sure, I didn’t come up with it all by myself, but it’s not as if Samin Nosrat invented tuna confit, either. The gist is the same across recipes: salt the fish, infuse oil with aromatics on very low heat, add the fish, cook the fish, remove the fish, eat the fish. And if my recipe included the other salad ingredients, as pictured above, it would be even more “mine.”

But even if it didn’t, I’d say it’s original. A new recipe is like a new rendition of a folk song, a retelling of a folktale with a unique inflection. 

So much of art (and cookery) begins with imitation. In his brilliant TED Talk–itself a piece of performance art–Hetain Patel makes a powerful claim for the inseparability of mimicry and originality. He says, “We learn who we are by copying others.” 

Another way to think about this is that the individual, rather than being in opposition to the collective, arises from it. Creativity is, by nature, collaboration. Think of sampling in hip-hop, or modern adaptations of Austen novels and Shakespeare plays. Think of Shakespeare’s plays themselves, which so often borrow heavily from existing source material. Think of pastiche, collage, found poetry, fan fiction. 

A cento–from the Latin for patchwork–is a poem comprising lines stitched together from other sources, other poems. Incidentally, I borrowed the language for that definition from this article by David Lehman

Check out this luminous cento by Nicole Sealey. There is nothing derivative or unoriginal about this poem, even as it’s derived from other poems, even as the lines did not originate with Nicole Sealey. 

In “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem writes compellingly and exhaustively about the art of mimicry in the arts. Spoiler alert: Lethem reveals at the end that his essay on so-called plagiarism itself borrows liberally from other sources. 

So in that spirit, allow me to echo, or just outright steal, Lethem’s plaintive cry, following a long list of great works of literature that borrow heavily from others: “If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.”


We want more plagiarism! So make us some more plagiarism. Be original by being derivative. Perhaps you will choose a different fish, or different aromatics, but be sure you do plenty of copying, too. 

Here’s one way to try it: Gather a stack of favorite books. Make a playlist of favorite songs whose lyrics you especially like. Leaf through, listen, and transcribe favorite lines, each on a different scrap of paper. Or I guess you could type them! Then arrange and rearrange and find patterns and resonances among them. Maybe that’s all you need–a true cento.

You could also write within the gaps. Extend the metaphor. Connect the dots. 

Or you could start with an unfinished draft of your own, or maybe a couple unfinished drafts, and mix those with some stolen lines. 

For fiction, it might make more sense to limit the source material. Think of a story that you find particularly moving or riveting or memorable. Could be from a movie (perhaps Hot Tub Time Machine is ripe for a retelling?) or a book, long or short. Now adapt it. Retell it in your own way. I did this once (almost 20 years ago!) with a heart-wrenching little story called “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield, about a spinsterish type who goes out to the Jardins Publiques to hear a band wearing a fur necklet of which she is quite fond and proud–only to overhear a wealthy young couple evilly make fun of her and, especially, the fur. 

In my story, set in a very different time and place, with an aging, single gay man as its protagonist, I wanted to capture the way Manfield juxtaposes Miss Brill’s fragile bravery–her hope of having a lovely day wearing a garment she loves–with her deeply lonely existence. I stole the feel of the ending, too, which I won’t spoil, but which is all the more poignant because of its extreme restraint. I doubt anyone would recognize “Miss Brill” in my story unless they’d just read it. 

I recently read Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, which airlifts Antigone out of ancient Greece and drops it in postcolonial Britain. The central conflicts and themes are the same, and its characters share similar names and tendencies as Sophocles’ except that Shamsie’s principals are first-gen Pakistani immigrants grappling with religious and national identity–and the lure of ISIS. And honestly, if I hadn’t googled something about the book when I was midway through it, I’m not sure I would have realized the source material, even though I’ve read and taught Antigone several times. In the second half, I found that Shamsie adhered very closely to the original, down to individual lines of dialogue as well as the “character” of the chorus, which takes the form of tabloids and social media. 

You can, of course, be more or less faithful to the original. Either way, what you write will be fully your own work, fully inspired, fully original.