Beg Borrow


by Fran Stallings

When we storytellers find a story we love, we want to get hold of it whether we have to "beg, borrow, or steal." We want to make the story our own. But how much should a story change in the retelling?

Perhaps it depends on "whose" story it was before it came to us. That can make a big difference.

1. BEG. Some stories clearly belong to their creators. The authors of literary tales, the tellers who relate personal experience stories or original compositions, have given the world something new. They deserve the credit: that's what copyrights were invented for. Let's ask their permission, assuring them that their names will always be mentioned. They will let us know if there are any conditions. Must we stick to their exact text? Promise not to record it? Maybe their answer is “No.” Remember, beggars can't be choosers.

2. BORROW. Traditional folktales are public domain material, "belonging" to no one - and to everyone. But we owe a tale from other folks' traditions the same respect and care we would give to a musical instrument we might borrow from a neighbor. Before we start playing around with it we should learn about its traditional use, its special powers and vulnerabilities. We may never be able to play it like a native-born musician, but at least we won't misuse or distort it. Let's remember that a borrowed ethnic story is part of its people's life and heritage. They have kindly allowed us to borrow it. We should be able to return it undamaged.

3. STEAL. But haven't storytellers carried tales around the world, constantly changing and adapting them, since time immemorial? Right. As Steve Simmer has pointed out, traditional storytellers were not borrowers but thieves. They took something from someone else and made it their own.

A skillful car thief changes more than the license plate and paint. If we're going to appropriate a foreign story, claiming it happened right here, let's steal it right. We won't just change the accents and add some local names. We'll take it to the chop-shop: strip out motifs and incidents which don't fit the new setting, wipe off the fingerprints of alien cultural assumptions. We may have to rebuild the plot or turn the ending upside down before we can drive off in a story we can call "our own".

For example: Jay Stailey transports urban legends and public domain folklore onto his island of Clear Lake in Galveston Bay, peopled with vivid local characters. When a new-age Vibration Specialist rids the island of giant roaches, then punishes the stingy town council by luring away their pickup trucks, you know Jay stole that story fair and square! He stripped it down to the basic idea and then customized it himself.

[Copyright law says you can't copyright ideas, just the individual creative expressions of them. Note that Jay's expression of an old idea has become so creatively original that it now falls in category #1…]


So go ahead and Beg, Borrow, or Steal that story. But before you make it "your own," be sure you know who owned it first. Then you can act accordingly.