Swag – How Writers Steal Things And Why That’s Perfectly OK
All writers have Swag. And I don’t mean Swag in the way that is bandied around the internet nowadays. I know for sure that I definitely don’t mean that, because I have only a very vague notion as to what the term refers to. The best definition I’ve been able to come up with for “having Swag” is this : “Acting like a twat, yet remaining mysteriously likeable to other twats”.
My interest in etymology would lead me to believe that “Swag” might be short for “Swagger”. And thereby lies a slight problem. Swagger is the root of the word “Swaggering”. And my 43 year old brain can’t conceive the word “Swaggering” without also tagging the word “Prick” at the end. Swaggering prick. The words just go together like hot chocolate and tiny marshmallows. I’m carefully trying to construct a case to prove that having “Swag” does not mean that you are a twat or a prick. It’s not going well.
Anyway, whatever the modern definition of the word, I am talking of the old definition of Swag. When I say all writers have Swag I mean in the manner of the word printed on the hessian sack of the stripy jumpered comedy burglar. Swag as in, loot. Booty. Stolen goods. The dreaded P word. Plagiarism.
All writers plagiarize. Just a little bit. The odd turn of phrase here, the occasional Mot Juste there. Even big, successful writers like Terry Pratchett. He has used “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on” in several of his Discworld novels. He stole this from Mark Twain (A lie can run six times around the world while the truth is still trying to put on its pants). And Mark Twain in turn stole it from 18th Century inventor James Watt (A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on).
Or maybe Terry stole it directly from Mr Watt. Mark Twain’s version is much clumsier. Doesn’t matter. The point is everybody does it and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But like all things people say that about, it’s not something anyone would want to bring up in polite conversation and certainly not something you’d want anyone to catch you doing.
So maybe you’re a writer and have made the decision that you’re not going to be like other writers. Everything you’re going to write is going to be your own. No literary pilfering. Everything an original. If so there are two things you might want to consider. Firstly, if you’re not going to be like other writers, then it’s highly unlikely you will ever be published. Secondly, the whole thing would be pissing in the wind anyway.
Writers often talk about “finding your own voice. This is a euphemism. What they really mean is hiding all the voices that make up your style of communication. Your “voice” is an amalgam of everything you’ve ever read, every movie you’ve ever seen and every conversation you’ve ever had. Everything you write is a mish mash of things that already exist, passed through some sort of sieve in your brain. Like anything that’s been passed through a sieve, it doesn’t look the same afterwards. But it’s essentially the same stuff.
This is just the nature of the beast. Don’t be afraid of it. One day – if it hasn’t already happened- a perfect phrase will pop into your head, and you will nervously squirrel it away into a piece writing. You will know that you’ve read it somewhere before, but not remember where or when. Then, some time later, whilst mucking out your old notes, you will come across that phrase again. The realization will slowly dawn that you have, in fact, just plagiarised yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling. Enjoy it. And be happy that as long as you enjoy writing it and others enjoy reading it and no one gets sued, it’s all good. And even if you do get sued, that’s what we call publicity right there.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2013