What The Words Taught Me About Writing | Steal Your Heroes’ Words

by Crystal Paradis-Catanzaro

It’s hard to find a place to start writing when you’ve been out of practice. As alluded to in the oft-quoted and posterified snippet from Ira Glass, there’s a level of taste that any writer has that always exceeds his or her ability, at least at the start. It takes some time before words coming from your own mind and pen and fingertips starts to impress you, and feel exciting and good and are something that you are proud of.

Photo from: http://www.filmofilia.com/the-words-movie-photos-111619/

I was reminded again today of the scene in The Words when the main character, played by Bradley Cooper, starts to type the words of the manuscript he’s found. He’s become so enamored with the words that exceed anything he’s ever written, that he just wants to feel those words go through his fingertips. By simply copying these words, he feels a rush that has been missing from his stultified writing life. Even if it’s not something he crafted, the simple act of typing great language gets a spark going again that he’s been missing.

Now, regardless of where the story goes in the film (I’m no spoiler!), this concept seems useful to me. There are many versions of the advice “just start writing/typing” that we writers all have heard from various authors and creatives, and I say if you don’t have any words of your own, why not steal them? Now, it’s rare that anything related to creativity in the last few years that resonates with me does NOT tie back into one way or another to Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist book—and quite often, it’s not a quote from Kleon himself, but from someone else he’s quoted, thereby reinforcing his whole message, which is a combination of two opposite truths: that nothing is original, and also that everything YOU make is unique. True to form, a quote from his book does come to mind when considering the idea of stealing your heroes’ words, this one from Francis Ford Coppola:

“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you, and you will put it in your own voice, and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day, someone will steal from you.”

So, I say, if you’re stuck in a rut and you want a shortcut to that feeling you get when the words that start pouring out are really good, grab a book you love by an author that inspires you, and start copying out some of your favorite passages. Once you get a taste again of what well-crafted language feels like coming out, you’ll do what it takes to get back in the habit of creating that language yourself.

Reading really good work also has this effect on me. I recently picked up a book of poetry, The Best Poems of the English Language, which sounds terribly overpromising, but I trusted the collection because it is curated by none other than Harold Bloom, who wrote Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, a book I was obsessed with in high school (it’s quite possible Bloom occasionally engages in hyperbole, but he does follow through with ample support of his claims). Reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s and John Cleveland’s words had an effect on me similar to the sound of packing a new pack of cigarettes, back when I was a heavy smoker—it nearly made my mouth water. I’m no biologist, but I believe the addiction neurons in the brain, the dopaminergic centers (my neurologist former roommate would be so proud of me for remembering that), act the same whether your addiction is a substance or a well-turned phrase… give yourself a taste of that feeling, and you will alter your behavior to keep that feeling coming.

Having a daily habit of reading and writing is tough to keep, but I hereby grant you permission to “cheat” if you need to—copy down words of your heroes to get your juices flowing.

They won’t mind, I promise.*


(For more life lessons I’ve learned from films, check out “How The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Changed the Way I Use My Computer“)

*Disclaimer: This advice is for personal use only, and is not intended as an implicit or direct endorsement of plagiarism or an attempt to publish work by or wrongfully claim authorship of another’s work.