Raising Writing Standards by Stealing

For more than two decades I have been a keen advocate of ‘Steal and Adapt’ (Transformational Response) as a key factor in school writing development programs.

A recent visit to the major David Bowie exhibition at the V&A (23 March-11 August 2013) has finally prompted me to briefly collect my thoughts on this subject in print.

Bowie is clearly an eclectic ‘thief’, (…and let’s establish immediately that I do not use that word in a derogatory manner) an autodidact with a broad sweep of interests. He steals from film – Fritz Lang to A Clockwork Orange; fashion, Japanese theatre, Pop art etc etc

In the Spring 2013 edition of the V&A journal Dylan Jones discusses his ‘…innate ability to plunder’ though it should be noted that plundering is only one step in the creative process. Active selection precedes the act of plunder and careful combination follows thereafter.

When the stolen elements are judiciously mixed then a NEW thing/whole emerges.

Bowie is not a hoarder as hoarding is indiscriminate; he is more of a collector. He COLLECTS with care and then he COMBINES and it is through these two C’s, rather than the three R’s, that both fiction and non fiction writing can be successfully developed in schools.

It is not a new idea (See, I prove my point!!!!!): T.S. Eliot articulated it very well,

Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal…and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

What I am suggesting is that we actively encourage literary theft as it is central to the development of an individual authorial voice. In writing these thefts should occur at both a micro and a macro level,

MICRO LITERARY THEFT: Stealing words, phrases and sentences and recombining these in new ways

MACRO LITERARY THEFT: Stealing ideas and plots then adapting these. (All ‘Fan Fiction’  – new stories based on pre-existing characters- is a form of Macro Literary Theft)

The question arises as to how we promote this kind of theft in the classroom. Personally I think the key lies in the EXPLICIT linking of reading and writing. If we are writing fairy tales we should be reading fairy tales; if we are writing myths then we should be reading myths. Importantly this should occur without a time lag or transfer of ideas, from the texts pupils read to the texts they write, will suffer.

As teachers we should model the process of theft ourselves and then model how we combine ideas and ‘found phrases’ to form new ideas and new word combinations. We cannot achieve this if time is not set aside for reading WHOLE stories (as opposed to extracts).

To be truly creative pupils need something to creatively manipulate – something to reject, something to alter and something to copy. Theft is an integral part of the creative process and we should encourage it.

As David Bowie comments,

The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from

and, as Yohiji Yamamoto pithily puts it,

Start copying what you love…at the end of it you will find yourself.

If we teach budding writers to ‘steal and adapt’ they too will ultimately find their own creative voices.

Alan Peat     April 2013


(I would be very interested to hear from schools/teachers who are promoting literary theft as a writing development tool. Contact using info@alanpeat.com


2 thoughts on “Raising Writing Standards by Stealing

  1. Excellent article inspired by a fantastic exhibit. I think there’s also something to be said for the aspirational nature of Bowie’s collecting habits. He has spoken candidly about his formative years when he sought out art, in various mediums, that he thought was ‘above’ his intellect. At first his motivation was to appear astute, progressive and worldly (by, as he admits, buying books with impressive titles so he could have them sticking out of jacket pockets during train rides for all to see). Yet he would eventually come to engage fully with those pieces, would work hard to understand them, and would, in the end ‘steal’ something from each work to absorb into his creative process.

    It is this aspirational aspect of Bowie’s collecting habits that could also be transferred to eductaional approaches. If anything, I think Bowie is actually a great proponent of the ‘no-brow’ approach. So, like Bowie, we should not assume that because a piece of art, (imagery, film, music or writing) is complex, we (or more importantly, our pupils) do not still stand to gain something by engaging with it. In the same way, there are wildly underused mediums, such as comics, that also should not be ignored, or thought of as ‘low-brow’, when they offer such an engaging wealth of ideas and creative possibilities!

    Get stealing – make Ziggy proud!


    • I absolutely agree Mathew…your point about complexity and the importance of NOT assuming these things will be ‘above’ pupils is of fundamental importance. Aim high and they’ll climb with you. Cheers for the comment

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