Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Steal Without Shame

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 26, 2014

Today marks (more or less) the 20th anniversary of The Legend of Bagger Vance, the first book I ever got published (after almost thirty years of trying)—and, in its brand-new, leather-bound incarnation, the centerpiece of this year’s Christmas Special at Black Irish Books. The video below is me telling all about this one-time-only Holiday Gift Special. Take a look. The video’s short. And trust me, we went all out for this Christmas. This Special is a good one!

Meanwhile I’m gonna take the next few weeks in this space and share a few reflections on the subject of The Legend of Bagger Vance and of the emotional and spiritual passage that is required of every writer before he or she can ultimately break into print.

Reflection #1 is the title of this post: Steal Without Shame.

Here’s what I mean:

When I started writing Bagger, I was working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I’d been doing that for about ten years. For the first four or five I worked with a partner, Ron Shusett (Alien, Total Recall).

One of the tricks Ron and I used to employ when we were struggling to get a handle on a new story was we’d ask ourselves, “Is there a model for this story? Is there a book or a movie that has a similar theme and structure? And if there is, can we steal it?”

The Christmas Special leather-bound, slip-cased "Bagger"

I use the word steal in its most noble and honorable sense. As Sir Laurence Olivier said,

Mediocre artists borrow. Great artists steal and make better.

Why steal? Because there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel. If Shakespeare has already cracked the structure of the love story, why not study how he did it?

Ron and I had a corollary to Olivier’s mantra:

If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.

Here are a few classic structures that have been ripped off to excellent effect more times than anyone can count: The Odyssey, the Iliad, Xenophon’s Anabasis, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Moby Dick, High Noon, Shane. Did I mention the Bible? The Christ story is probably the greatest and most moving of all—and the one that has been stolen the most.

When you steal a great story, it gives you confidence. You know you’re working with a theme and a structure that have passed the test of time. Are we ripping off the structure of the Jesus of Nazareth saga to tell a contemporary police story set in New Orleans? Then we know we must ask ourselves such questions as, “Who is our Judas? Do we have a Mary Magdalene? Have we written a great Betrayal Scene?”

For Bagger, I stole the structure of the Bhagavad-Gita.

Are you familiar with the Gita? It’s been called the “Hindu Bible.” It’s a monumental work, timeless, profound. And it’s short. You can read it in an hour.

The Gita is the story of the great warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna—i.e. God in human form.

(See what I mean? It’s a fantastic story in twenty-five words or less.)

I didn’t rip off the Gita cynically. I’ve always loved the book. I’ve read it probably thirty times. For years I thought, “There’s gotta be some way I can use this narrative structure. It’s so deep. It’s so good. I gotta steal it.”

Here’s how the Gita starts:

Ancient India. Two armies are lined up across from one another—chariots, elephants, everything. A titanic battle is about to start. At the head of one army is our hero, the great warrior Arjuna.

Arjuna looks across at the warriors in the opposing army. He recognizes many. They are friends, teachers, comrades. Suddenly he is seized with grief and dread. What good can come from war? Are we not mad to slaughter each other in the name of pride and ambition?

Arjuna calls out to his charioteer Krishna (Krishna, remember, is God) and orders him to drive their chariot out between the two armies. There Arjuna stops, lays down his immortal bow, Gandiva, and refuses to fight.

(Is this a great opening or what? And it gets better.)

Krishna responds to Arjuna, not by obeying him but by reading him the Riot Act. Krishna orders Arjuna to stand up and remember his courage. “You will not be slaying the enemy,” he says (in his capacity as God, who knows all and can do all), “for I have slain them all already.”

The rest of the Gita is Krishna’s instruction of Arjuna in all things material, spiritual, and metaphysical. He teaches Arjuna about karma, duality and non-duality, about discipline and honor and yoga in the Indian sense of the word, meaning self-discipline toward the end of union with God.

I stole that scene lock, stock, and barrel, and I stole half of Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna.

I just changed Arjuna from a troubled warrior to a troubled golf champion—and changed Krishna from his charioteer to his caddie. I kept the idea that Krishna is God. I borrowed his Hindu title of respect, Bhagavan (meaning “lord”), and called him “Bagger Vance.”

The signed and numbered page of the leather-bound "Bagger Vance," #1 of 2500.

And I changed the setting from ancient India to Savannah, Georgia and the central clash from a battle to a golf tournament.

It’s not stealing if you take it and tweak it.

It’s not stealing if you infuse it with a new and original spin.

Was I confident? Yes and no. Part of me believed, “This stuff is so deep and so great, it has to resonate with people.” But another part was not so sure. “Have I gone too far? Is this stuff too alien, too weird? Will anybody get it? Will anybody care?”

More next week on the fine art of stealing.

[Finally, in the spirit of our Black Irish Books Holiday Special, I want to say a big, turkey-stuffed THANK YOU to all our loyal readers and site visitors. Shawn, Callie, Jeff and I send you all our best for a great Holiday Season. We try to keep this blog straight-shooting and generous and we thank you, our friends, for being that way to us too. Happy Holidays!]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

31 Responses to “Steal Without Shame”

  1. Jeremy
    November 26, 2014 at 3:48 am

    Rannulph Junuh = R. Junuh = Arjuna

    I don’t remember the film being good but I remember reading the book (in Georgia) and taking down many notes. It’s a beautiful book with rich language.

    On stealing: they say if copyright had existed in Shakespeare’s time, most of his play would never have been made.

    • Jeremy
      November 26, 2014 at 3:49 am

      *plays

  2. steve
    November 26, 2014 at 6:13 am

    Steve, I appreciate your continued themes and instruction for writing, breaking down story into elements and putting it all back together to make it flow and inspire. Much appreciated.

  3. November 26, 2014 at 6:22 am

    Thank you for consistently valuable blog posts. My husband and I love your work. Congratulations on the anniversary of your book. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  4. November 26, 2014 at 6:29 am

    The Bhagavad-Gita…now that explains that apocalyptic storm at the end.

  5. Mary Doyle
    November 26, 2014 at 6:33 am

    Thanks for another year of top-notch advice! I’m looking forward to spending 2015 with the Black Irish team – Happy Thanksgiving to each of you, and thanks for your continued generosity to those of us who show up here each week!

    I wish that my dad, who died ten years ago next month, was alive so I could give him a copy of Bagger Vance. Although dad wasn’t much of a reader, he was a gifted amateur golfer who was proud to be still “shooting his age” in his 80’s. He would have loved the book. Congrats on Bagger’s 20th anniversary!

  6. Walter Trauth
    November 26, 2014 at 6:45 am

    One of my favorite movies, actually. Mostly for the writing. Also for Miss Adele’s fashion sense. I’m going to buy the book again today. This time on Kindle so I can’t give it away.

    Rannulph Junuh: “Interesting match.”
    Adele Invergordon: “I’ve always thought so.”

    I’m still in love with her. Thanks for the reminder, Steve.

  7. November 26, 2014 at 6:50 am

    Steve- thanks for being, in the writing sense, this tribe’s own Krishna. Battle seems a little less scary now…

    Congrats on the 20th Anniversary!

  8. Paul Rink
    November 26, 2014 at 7:01 am

    Looking good Steve. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving !

    Paul

  9. Amy Duncan
    November 26, 2014 at 7:32 am

    This is fascinating! I read “Bagger Vance” recently for the first time, and this makes so much sense. I’m a big believer that true creativity involves highway robbery. :) As a composer, I do this all the time…something inspires you, and you make it your own…it’s as simple as that.

  10. November 26, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I first read your book War of Art about the same time I discovered Joel Saltzman’s If You Can Talk You Can Write–both of which recommended “stealing” from other writers. Were it not for those two books doubt I would ever have written mine — you made me ashamed of my flagrant procrastination in getting the damned book done, and Saltzman’s book format gave me a precise and suitable format for my book about playing bridge of all things. I DID confess to that thievery in back of the book under “Acknowledgments of Appreciation.”
    Maggy Simony

  11. Jerry Ellis
    November 26, 2014 at 7:55 am

    Steve, I steal more than good stories. I just returned last night from two months in Rome, my second home. While there I always introduced myself as Steven Pressfield. I got a lot of free meals and met some very beautiful women that way. Did your book sales go up? Actually, I did just get home from Rome and I’m very happy for the anniversary of your wonderful book. This is the first time I have dropped by your site in a while and I’m reminded how powerfully and honestly you write. We share something in common right now. This is the 25th anniversary of my 900 walk along the Cherokee Trail of Tears and my resulting book was my breakthrough book. Random House nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize and it continues to do well after all these years. Keep up the great work, Steve, as I know you have no choice in doing. Once the Fire starts it rarely goes out.

    • Sonja
      November 26, 2014 at 9:45 am

      Hello Jerry,

      I had to chime in because your post made me extremely uncomfortable.

      I certainly hope you didn’t walk around Rome impersonating Steven Pressfield to get free meals and female attention. I’m sorry, but that’s FRAUD, and it crosses a line. The spirit of this post is to steal BUT be yourself.

      Also, from a marketing standpoint, I appreciate why you want to plug your book on this site, but it comes across as disingenuous when you do it EVERY TIME.

      Thanks,
      Sonja

    • November 26, 2014 at 10:00 am

      Jerry,
      I laughed out loud at this! Too funny! Happy Thanksgiving, and congrats on your anniversary as well.
      bsn

      • Sonja
        November 26, 2014 at 5:03 pm

        Ah! My sincere apologies if I misinterpreted this, since I took it literally! HA! Very sorry, but happy thanksgiving to the team anyway!

    • November 27, 2014 at 2:08 am

      Laughing my head off. Seriously, you may be suffering from insecurity of your own identity, if so seek therapy. If only imitating our Steve here for free meals and female attention..tut-tut, but still funny.

  12. November 26, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Hi Steve, some serendipity the other night. Bagger was on TV here in Italy. Even though it was on late I had to stay and watch and now viewed it through different eyes, thanks to your fab posts.
    cheers

  13. November 26, 2014 at 8:15 am

    I never tire of recommending James Young Webb – ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’. According to Webb, it’s all about specific and general information and the relationship and combinations between old material with a new twist.
    Interesting post today, I’m actually working on a project at the moment on creative thinking.
    Very timely Steve. Nice Christmas stocking by the way!

  14. Barry
    November 26, 2014 at 8:39 am

    This is awesome. Thanks so much for sharing. NOW I have a better understanding why Bagger is so powerful!

  15. Sonja
    November 26, 2014 at 9:12 am

    This was great, and I needed to hear this, because I’ve reached a tough section in my WIP. Frustratingly so. Thanks again, Steven!

  16. November 26, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Applying this to visual art…..For my third graphic novel, “Exile”, I heavily borrowed seven images from Gustave Dore’s magnificent illustrations for “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I made changes in the images and painted them in color, but I still felt compelled to acknowledge, in the back of the book, my theft and gratitude to Dore.

    My coach at the time said “steal from the best”.

    Now I aspire to be an artist so powerful that people will want to steal from me!

  17. November 26, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Lovely post. One of my favorites on this theme is:

    “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
    Pablo Picasso

    He knew what he was talking about!

  18. November 26, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Dear Steve,
    Going to read Gita this weekend. It has been on my list for years, was even talking with an Indian friend last week about it.

    When I ask people if they read Steven Pressfield (which is nearly everyone I talk with about books/growth/challenges/life), I always ask if they’ve seen “Legend of Bagger Vance” first. My assumption is most people don’t read, but do watch movies.

    I stole the idea for a Language training program called LingFit from CrossFit. Train the brain like the body. Stole the idea of stair races from The Big Climb in Seattle for my race “Unleashed at Stadium Bowl”.

    There is nothing new under the sun, except tweeks. I think creativity is more about re-hashing old ideas than creating something out of whole cloth. Just finished “The Innovators” by Walter Issacson–same story. Everyone bootlegs from everyone.

    Thank you for the wonderful Holiday Gift. I wish everyone at Black Irish Books and the rest of the tribe a very happy holiday season-whatever your flavor.
    bsn

    • November 26, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Brian, I love your thefts. Inspired! Keep those light fingers!

  19. November 26, 2014 at 10:38 am

    As coincidence would have it, I read this post and then moved on to the next shiny thing, which happened to be an article sent by my friend Laura. (Google: Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”)

    Thought to have been written about 55 years ago and sent to me a month ago, I stumbled over it in my inbox two minutes after reading Steve:

    “Is there a model for this story? Is there a book or a movie that has a similar theme and structure? And if there is, can we steal it? Why steal? Because there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel.”

    So two minutes later, in Asimov’s essay, I see:

    “One way of investigating the problem [[of creativity and new ideas]] is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated.”

    Can you feel a little spark of cosmic glee when an idea seems to create a harmonic like that?

    Good post as usual, Steve.

  20. November 26, 2014 at 11:33 am

    I’m so thankful for your insights and inspiration. You’ve become my creative guru. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

  21. November 26, 2014 at 12:40 pm

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  22. November 26, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    I still haven’t recovered from your generous holiday package a year ago! Thanks to each of you — Steve, Shawn, Callie, and Jeff — for the inspiration all year long.

    If I could only read three books over and over for the rest of my life it would be yours, Steve. When I finish them I start them over. It’s almost like keeping my wheels aligned.

    The best part? They make such great gifts. So thanks, again! Cheers!

  23. Dianna
    November 30, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Dear Steve,
    I am currently reading your work for the first time, War of Art. So far I am enjoying it very much. I love your use of words and your insights are very relatable. Looking forward to reading more. Thank you!

  24. jane darling
    December 1, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks for the Xmas Special – Stuff Your Stocking…it is superb. I got stuck in traffic for several hours on Thanksgiving day but I had put ALL the audio files onto my mp3 player so I sat there and listened, drinking coffee. I did not make it to Thanksgiving with the relatives (ones I actually like) but had a great afternoon anyway – listening to the audio books! Lucky day! Terrific selection. You are inspiring.