(originally published under “Your Guide to Thievery,” Sept 16, 2011, thebarking.com)
Know what’s played.
No one’s going to break into a house and walk out with a VCR under his arm, a bag of incandescent light bulbs, and a pair of worn Hammer pants. Keep your eye out for catchy trends and be wary of stealing these, because they’ll fade once everyone else catches on and moves onto the next thing. I see this more in titles and sentence-level constructions: what we talk about when we talk about [yawning], x is the new y, or the bromance of tabloid portmanteaux.*
Know your history.
In Kentucky, when someone dies and their house is about to be torn down for an expanded worship center, it’s common practice for people to strip it. Sure, there’s copper wire. But even better—antique brass doorknobs, gingerbread molding, or wild ceramic inlays. You’ve got learn what’s been of value to understand what’s valuable now. Read Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, etc. You’ll be surprised by their beauty and everything worth stealing in the classics.
Also, look to the public domain—if it’s over 80 years old, it’s fair game. Take an older piece and try rewriting it within your voice and your vision. Musicians do this all the time with folk songs (think: the Grateful Dead or Moby’s Southside). I would love to read your short story based on John Henry, Tom Dooley, or Persephone.
Don’t walk out with too much.
Every good thief should know how much space they have in their backpack. If it doesn’t fit, leave it behind. Make certain to take what’s worthy at the moment, but know how many tricks you can take and pack into in a short story, a poem, or an essay. The same goes for individual tricks. For example, allusions are awesome, and whenever I read one, I feel as though I just found an Easter egg and it’s July. But if you use too many, you’re going to lose your reader. T.S. Eliot wrote in 1920, “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better…the good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it was torn.”
Robert Frost told lecture audiences that Eliot had made “an anthology of the best lines in poetry, strung them together, and copyrighted the result.”
Don’t expect Norton’s to annotate you.
Return to a loaded space.
I once had a persistent thief who broke into my house twice in a two-week period because he’d been pressed for time during the first robbery and didn’t get a thorough look around. Reread works that have a lot you could steal. Steal something different every time you read them.
Steal something you normally wouldn’t want.
We all knew that guy in college who had the stop sign and the police line do not cross tape as decorations in his apartment. You wouldn’t have thought that it would work hanging on the walls like that, but it really brought the room together. If you’re reading along and you see something crafty, but think that you’ll never use it, take it anyway. You never know when you’ll need an orange traffic cone.
Scope out a strange neighborhood.
Some alebrijes are worth more than pearls, but you’d never know it if you didn’t venture out of your comfort zone. The things that they keep in Little Mexico and the country club gated community are totally different and uniquely valuable. Read what you like, but also read and let yourself be influenced by dystopian literature, magical realism, Southern gothic, etc. Look at art, listen to new music, watch movies.
Practice pickpocketing on your friends.
The finer aspects of thievery involve deft maneuvers. Those guys who got your wallet while you waited in line for the Eiffel Tower didn’t learn how to steal in a day. If one of your writing friends does something cool, steal it and make it your own. See if they notice. If they do, you can always say, “Hah, yeah, I got that from your bag” and if they don’t, buy yourself a latte.
Think like a cop.
You never want to hold up a 7-11 when a cop is in there eating donuts. Whenever you’re up to something, cops are everywhere. You’ve got to learn when you’re about to be in trouble and when you might get offered a job by the FBI because you’ve become a master at cracking safes. If you’re stealing and you feel guilty; it’s probably close to plagiarism. Throw it in a drainage grate and find something else to steal. We’re a society of fact-checkers now, and it really isn’t worth it to make a name for yourself as being a copyright infringer.
*Like any set of guidelines, if something says don’t, you should still give it a try.