The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Have you ever been intellectually robbed? Have you ever shared an idea with friends, only to see your inspiration copied with no credit given? I wanted to chastise you for feeling sorry for yourself, but a couple of my colleagues have already taken you to task. Are you awake and ready for a bit of ego building? I am happy to do it. Sip your cocktail of choice and relax. Here is my question: Why is it a good thing if people want to borrow your ideas or copy your style?

It is a hot and humid afternoon in Manhattan. Babe Paley exits La Grenouille, the luncheon appointment concluded and she exchanges parting pleasantries with a few ‘ladies who lunch’. The city air is completely still, and the heat that rises from the pavement is stifling.  She casually removes the scarf knotted loosely around her neck, and so as not to lose it, ties it around the handle of her handbag in a soft, elegant bow. That effortless gesture is copied within weeks by stylish women across the country.

It is a windy day in Germany as Jacqueline Kennedy sits on the podium listening to speech after speech, smiling her now famously enigmatic smile. A gust of wind threatens to lift her pillbox hat from her head, and in an attempt to secure it, she dents it. The style catches on like wildfire, an accident soon copied by women all over the world.

I have dozens of these anecdotes. They cross all the art forms – dance, music, painting and literature. Fashion is the one that comes most naturally to me. Both of these famous women had an innate sense of style and had the confidence to glide serenely toward their goals, never doubting that their choices would be placed under a microscope, and blindly copied. They accepted the immediate imitation as part of being who they were.

Ok, I understand that an indie author is not Jackie Kennedy. But if you don’t think ideas are stolen from the most humble origins, let me give you a personal example.

Several years ago I decided to start a blog. I was pretty clueless as to what I needed to do, but I knew I needed to write somewhere beside my own blog in order to get experience and exposure. There was an e-magazine that I discovered on the Internet with exactly the sort of brief posts I was interested in writing. I contacted the owner on Facebook and in several subsequent emails, offered my services for free. I never received a response. Undeterred, I proceeded to write on my own blog about food, fashion, books, my dinner club or anything else I fancied. I discovered an interesting pattern. Within days of posting the link on Facebook to my blog a similar post would appear in the e-magazine. When it was 6 times in a row, I contacted the owner and informed her I was blocking her. My research indicates that she has been accused of this at least once before by another e-magazine. She is a very successful female entrepreneur.

At first I was pissed. I am a newbie! I offer you my services for free, and you steal from me? (She sold a lot of advertising on her site). There was nothing I could do about it. My husband said she was picking the low hanging fruit, and I needed to move on. I went to pound tennis balls and work off some anger and frustration. It occurred to me, as I envisioned her face on the balls as I crushed them, that I was looking at this completely wrong. My ideas were good enough for her to steal. This successful woman stole from little ol’ me! The light bulb went off in my head. My creativity wasn’t going to leave me, and I was just starting to understand this writing gig. The physical exertion had cleared my thinking and I was suddenly happy as I realized her theft confirmed what I was just beginning to realize – that I could do this. Writing interesting blog posts that people would want to read, that was just the beginning. Could I write a novel, a life-long goal? Well, I did.

That’s my story, friends. The important point is what does this mean to you? Do you keep track of your ideas? Do you have a way to store them, let them percolate, ‘see’ them? I think Pinterest is good for this. I love to play there. My ideas float with the dreams of others, mixing and cohabiting.

My desk.

I also love post-it notes. This is my actual desk. Actually, it is my dining room table functioning as a desk. It allows me to spread out a bit, and keeps inspirational things close by. It seems to work.

Here’s the Lois twist: have people stolen ideas from you? Yes? Good for you! Celebrate that you are a creative thinker, a thought leader. I have embraced the fact that a side comment by me becomes a blog post elsewhere. It’s ok. The idea that a one liner inspires the thought process of another writer should give one tremendous confidence. I have learned, however, to keep those ideas for the next novel to myself.

I am not talking here about the theft of manuscripts and books. That is heinous. And if someone is making money from your ideas, that is wrong. What I am talking about is recognizing that you possess what it takes to be a thought leader. That you can become someone others will follow and attempt to emulate. Don’t you want that? This is a natural form of promotion, and a great way to sell your novel.

That was your ego boost for today, a little snack to munch while you enjoy your cocktail. Revel in your creativity and let it take you where it will.

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L. A. Lewandowski is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novel, Born To Die – The Montauk Murders. For more information, please see the IU Bio Page and her[subscribe2]

Author: L. A. Lewandowski

Lois Lewandowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and French Literature. A passion for life lived well is reflected in her novels, Born to Die-The Montauk Murders, A Gourmet Demise, and My Gentleman Vampire, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the beau monde. Lois lives in Tampa, Florida. Learn more at her lifestyle blog, and her Amazon author page.

15 thoughts on “The Sincerest Form of Flattery”

  1. As you say, until it impacts on our income or puts another name to important work, I might agree, as it applies to writers. But I wonder what other people, non-writers, would say. I have heard many employees complain that their supervisor or employer stole their ideas – often ideas that saved money for the employer and ought to have been recognized and rewarded. But then, we are writers, so perhaps we are off in a space by ourselves.

  2. You're absolutely right, Yvonne. When the theft of an idea robs you of money, a promotion, etc., that is a different story.

    My point is that in order to establish yourself as a thought leader you have to get used to the idea that people will copy you. If you are very creative, your ideas will keep coming, and the more visible you are the more difficult it is for someone to take credit for your inspiration.

    If we hold back too much for fear that someone might steal an idea, we stifle our own message, the message we want to send out about who we are, and why you might want to read our book.

    As always, Yvonne, you help to clarify a point. Thanks! 🙂

    1. I completely agree, Lois. To withhold our ideas supports a competitive philosophy that says I cannot get ahead unless I keep everything close to my chest and share with no one. But I believe that attitude is counterproductive to progress – not only in writing but in all walks of life. But it is encouraging when we get credit for what we come up with, rather than have someone else take from us. Even so, better that the idea become food for discussion than that it stay hidden..

  3. I'd venture an even further guess, that there is no single idea in fiction that is completely unique anyway. I don't think of that fact as a problem, however. I see it as an affirmation of our common humanity. Recognition, as previously discussed, plays a very important part in making a work of fiction accessible to readers. Shared experience, from our earliest beginnings out of the trees, have made us all who we are, and when we read something that reaches deep inside of us, the chances are that common, human memory is what has been tickled. Plagiarism is not a funny or cute thing, but everything we write (IMHO) is a copy of something someone else has thought or expressed before us. That's why our stories work at all. Stealing common ideas seems a little strong. I like to think of it as borrowing… and passing it on. But don't make the mistake of copying my structure, characters, setting or plot threads. I can get ugly.

    1. Richard, I can't agree more!

      Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story became Twilight, right?

      Last night at a book club, I was invited by the club to discuss my book with them, we somehow migrated to 50 Shades of Grey, which I'm reading. One of the women pointed out that Anne Rice wrote erotica years ago that had the same story line. Rosanne Dingle wrote a post here about cliches, and I think that plays into this discussion as well. We reread genres that we like, or that, as you say, reach down and grab an emotion inside of us.

      I was hoping to encourage other authors to feel empowered when a small idea is borrowed. It is a compliment to the creativity of the writer, and means that they have the ability to inspire others, even if they do not directly receive the credit or an homage.

      Thanks for the insightful comments.

  4. I was plagiarized frequently when I was in the "ad biz." I got used to it. I just had to keep on creating even more new and better ideas to stay ahead of the competition. However, I never got used to people taking credit for my work. Granted, many projects were team efforts combining the talents of artists, photographers, writers, printers, etc. Although I could allow them credit for their contribution, it still galled a little when they took full credit for contributing the piece that brought the whole thing together. That was my job as creative director. However, one day I opened the current issue of Communications Arts magazine (very prestigious in its day) and found one of my team members not only taking credit for one of my ground-breaking ideas, but also complaining how hard it had been for her to get the idiot client (me) to go along with it. That person never worked for me again.

    1. Hi Jack,

      I am not surprised that plagiarism is rampant in advertising. It must have been unbelievably frustrating to have to deal with people stealing your brilliant ideas. But look how you handled it – you became the creative director, and you eventually called the shots. Your ideas kept flowing, no one could take that from you.

      This is exactly my point to writers. The ideas will keep coming, a little copying should be a confirmation that you have what it takes. We just need to protect ourselves. Plagiarism is truly awful.

  5. I agree, Lois. We should be flattered that someone thought enough of our work that they want to take credit for it. If it wasn't good, they would leave it alone. And, as you said, that does not refer to the theft of whole manuscripts, etc. I don't know of anything that has been stolen from me, but then it may have been and I just haven't come across it. If we don't have any more new ideas, then maybe we're in the wrong business. Maybe a job in the local book store would be more appropriate. 🙂

    1. Hi Diane!

      I'm sure you've had an idea borrowed… and it's great that you're not worrying about it. Just keep the ideas flowing.

      I hope I am able to read your book someday soon. Keep at it!

      1. I'm still waiting (and probably will be for a while yet) to hear back from the publisher that has one of my manuscripts. I'll let you know what happens – especially if they accept it! 🙂

  6. Lois, thank you for the concept of being a thought leader. This happens to me at my day job, and although my friends tell me it is a compliment, there is still the rub. But your idea of it being a sign of a "thought leader" — I love that. After all, it is the act of people following that defines a person as a leader.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      It is tough if someone takes an idea and doesn't give you credit. But if this is happening to you it does mean you are a leader.

      My son told me a story the other day about Peter Townsend. He went to see the Rolling Stones in concert, and before the show started the curtain opened and he saw Keith Richards warming up. Keith started windmilling his arm, and Townsend had the idea that that was how he wanted to pay the guitar. Years later, he said to Richards, "you know I have to give you credit, I saw you playing the guitar like that, and it's how I came up with my signature move." Keith Richards looked at him and said, "mate, I don't know what you're talking about. I was just stretching my arm!"

      At least Townsend gave Richards the credit. 🙂

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