Isaac Newton reportedly said back in 1676: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." As a writer, certainly, I believe it is by reading the great writers that came before us that one learns how to write. It is by walking in the footsteps of a genius that one learns how to find one's own path through the forest. Why invent the wheel, after all.
Certainly when I started out writing, it was with the help of certain writers whose voices inspired me, particularly writers like Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens or more recently Marguerite Duras. Those strong prose makers wrote original books which gave me the authority I needed to voice my own ideas, my own thoughts, my own secrets. Somehow these great writers gave me permission to be myself on the page. Sometimes it is by taking on the disguise of another that one finds oneself.
I think of a recent essay by Louis Begley in "The American Scholar" where he writes of how he came to find the form for a first novel which he composed in his fifties. It was a story about the holocaust, a story of a boy escaping Poland during the Nazi period, yet he turned to Dante's Inferno for the form and even the details that enabled him to turn this individual story of suffering of one boy at a precise moment in history into one of all humanity and all moments in time.
So how far can we carry out this maxim without being accused of plagiarism? As a teacher one realizes today particularly the danger of easy access to information. Yet it is not difficult to spot information that has been lifted undigested from the Internet for example. The important step, as with anything in life, is to make this information your own, to use it to convey what you want to say. Also, it is important to make sure the information you are using is valid. In other words, go to the greats, the experts, the ones who know for that information. If you are going to steal, steal from the best.
Which is perhaps why one should forgive Melania Trump's debut speech which was lifted from Michelle Obama's. What a good source she chose, and what good taste she had. What excellent sentences she stole. My word is my bond. Sounds pretty good to me.
As with all the steps we take in life we need to learn from those who came before us, to accept criticism and advice from our elders, but ultimately we have to find our own stories, our own values, even though these may be expressed in the form and sometimes even the words of others who have come before us.