A lot of rappers like to talk about how they are original and unique. As for copying? Well, back in the day this was called 'biting' and the attitude to it was summed up in the line 'biting is illegal, against the law.'
When it comes to writing stories, lot of teachers like to take the same line - "don't copy anyone else, make sure it's your own work."
But when it comes to writing (hot 16s, or stories) is it really that clear-cut? I'd say not. Here's a couple of examples and a bit of gentle theorising - see what you think.
The new tune from Jill Scott 'Shame' featuring Eve. Jill Scott is an original, no doubt. On 'Shame' she sings 'I'm the Magnificent' over the remix of "I'm the Magnificant" by Special Ed.
Has Jill run out of new ideas? Of course not. Likewise, when Eve begins her verse with the first line from Special Ed's verse we know it's not a 'bite' but something else. If I was in an English Lit class I might try to drop in words like 'homage' or 'intertextuality' to explain it (and let's face it try to impress people).
Taken further, when the beat from Special Ed's original version comes in we hear the samples of '007' by Desmond Dekker, which reminds us of Hip-Hop (and Ed's) Jamaican heritage. Of course, non-Hip-Hop anoraks might not get all that- it's still a wicked tune. But for those who know there's not only the satisfaction of knowing, there's the understanding that, Jill loves Hip-Hop and can draw on it and still bringing something brand new to the party. She knows the foundations upon which she is building her art (I believe that may be a mixed-metaphor but it makes sense, no?)
But even artists who don't explicitly reference other's artists are drawing on their work. Part of developing your own style is disguising your influences effectively. But the influences are still there. A rapper who hasn't listened to rap will be found out immediately.
And so will a storywriter who hasn't read stories.
Pie Corbett, the storyteller and Literacy consultant, describes the process of teaching writing as 'Imitation, Innovation, Invention.'
It strikes me that this is how writers and, indeed, all artists learn their craft. I've read so many interviews with MCs, poets, comedians and visual artists who recall how their earliest efforts were very derivative but an essential stage in learning their craft. Basically, they started out as 'copy-cats'. Pie Corbett talks about encouraging children to 'magpie' words, phrases, or story structures from quality writers. Learning what's worth borrowing is itself a skill. I've tried this approach and it works! The kids, liberated to copy, 'borrowed' from books, from me and from each other.
Or in Hip-Hop beat-making parlance , they sampled other artists' work. At first the sampling was obvious (Imitation) but then they mixed up the samples (Innovation) and then found a way of using them to say something personal (Invention). In the case of Jill Scott, the invention is so-evident that she can proudly display her influences knowing she will not be misunderstood as merely imitating.
So too in children's literature.
The children's picture book 'Into the Forest' by Anthony Browne.
This is a contemporary tale about (amongst other things) childhood fears. On entering the forest, the young protagonist encounters a number of fairy-tale characters, including Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. As with Jill Scott, recognising the references is not essential but adds greatly to the enjoyment.
Here's Browne, discussing how he came to write the book, you may want to skip to about 2:15
A few of Browne's phrases are worth highlighting. He talks about how the fairytales are part of his 'culture' and 'psychological make-up'. Of being 'steeped in fairytales' and immersed in a culture. But he also explains that the book is about a very personal experience of his.
As with Jill Scott, the invention comes from the individual artist, but is supported by imitation and innovation within a culture in which the artist is immersed.
So what are we teachers to make of all this? Well I'd say that we need to help children to become immersed in culture and understand also that they may be immersed in cultures not always recognised by the school system.
We need to encourage them to imitate. Let go of notions that copying is bad, because copying is how artists learn. Encourage them to copy 'good stuff' (e.g. Special Ed/ Red Riding Hood!) We don't create out of thin air.
When they can do this confidently, encourage them to switch it up, bring in some other stuff, be innovative.
Once they're confident with this, we need to give them opportunities to say something about themselves. To invent new stories, new songs, new art. If they are very confident, then like Jill and Anthony they can let their influences shine through because they are bring themselves into the story too.
I think this might be what is meant by a writer finding a 'voice'. At this point we are not beholden to culture nor are we attempting to operate independently of it. Rather we are recognising that we have a role to play in shaping it. If my pupils believe this of themselves, then I'm probably doing a good job.