Writing

Case Study: Language and Emotion in "Something Borrowed"

Malcolm Gladwell

Lesson time 15:08 min

Using his essay “Something Borrowed” as an example, Malcolm demonstrates how to use language and emotion to build a powerful narrative.

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Malcolm Gladwell
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So I had done a piece for "The New Yorker" many years ago about a psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis, whose specialty was serial killers. And it was long, long article, kind of a profile of her work-- her and her work. 10 years pass and a British playwright named Bryony Lavery wrote a play-- a very good play-- in which some of the dialogue-- a good portion of the dialogue-- had been lifted directly from my article. Maybe 15 or 20 lines, I can't remember how much. This was brought to my attention and my initial reaction was, this is outrageous. She stole my work. And then I read the play. I was like, actually, the play's really good. And then I thought, well, maybe I should meet the playwright and find out what happened. So I called her up and we had a long, really interesting conversation. She was incredibly apologetic. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, why did I think I was victimized? Like, it seemed like an odd-- I couldn't-- I couldn't figure out why I was victimized. So she didn't take my entire article, put her name on it, publish it, and make money off it. That's theft. That's clear to me. She took a little-- she read my article, was very inspired by it to write a really good work of fiction. And she took a small piece of text in 20 lines out of a 7,000-word piece, and other little details, and plugged them into her fictionalized narrative. She was taking my work and turning a small part of it-- the idea and small part of the building blocks of it-- into something new and really good. She had contrived to create art out of a work of nonfiction. Why wasn't I-- as I thought about it, I realized, why was my first reaction not to be flattered? I mean, how often does that happen? Not only that, she took it and the show ran on Broadway and got incredible reviews. I mean, what was my problem? was essentially, when I-- as I thought about it. And it was then-- it was when I realized that I didn't-- that I had that reaction that I realized, oh, this is a case where I think I can write in the first person. Because I do have an interesting story to tell. Because we've all read, a million times, the story about the writer who's plagiarized. And it's-- they're full of outrage and they're-- they act as if, you know, they had built some-- they had written the Bible and someone had ripped it off and was selling it at Walmart under their name, you know? And I've read that story so many times now. I don't want to read another one of those. So that was my-- why, I would never have written about this had it-- had I-- had I had the conventional response. But once I realized that actually I was flattered on some level to have participated in a work of artistic transformation, that I thought, well, actually, this is a case where people might actually be interested in my story. And then when I realized, wait, this is a great way to talk about the way art is created and how we're very dishonest about it, and that all art is...


Transform the ordinary

Ketchup. Crime. Quarterbacks. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, these ordinary subjects have helped millions of readers grasp complex ideas like behavioral economics and performance prediction. Now, the renowned storyteller and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point is teaching his first online writing class. Craft stories that captivate by learning how Malcolm researches topics, crafts characters, and distills big ideas into simple, powerful narratives.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I just BINGED watched Malcolm! I am completely IN LOVE WITH YOU, MALCOLM! And I'm an architect, not a writer. But I find your approach to writing applies to so many aspects of life. It certainly applies to the work of designing a house for a client.

It has sharpened my commitment to write with empathy and humanity. I learned alot about the craft too. Thank you Malcolm.

Malcom Gladwell is as generous as teacher as he is as a writer. Delightful!

I've learned to be open-minded about the world and tolerant of my own writing efforts.


Comments

Elizabeth R.

What is it--was it T.S. Eliot, or someone who said, Bad writers imitate, good writers steal! Still a very good discussion of this very complex relationship between a writer, and another writer who has built upon the work of the first to create and transform that writer's work. Hope I conveyed that right. I really got a lot out of the extent of the thinking Malcolm went through to arrive at the conclusions he eventually drew. I enjoy his discussions of his process.

M A.

His Wal-Mart Bible remark was funny because it's ridiculous and then it was even funnier because it's true.

Ekin Ö.

Malcolm's story is an excellent example of how to deliberately change the reader's emotions. It's like playing poker. You need to understand your opponent to detect whether they're bluffing or not. With every hand, you get a new piece of information about your opponent, and your views of them change step by step. So, instead of jumping to the conclusion, I deduct that it's better to give the reader only a piece of information every time the story asks.

carolkaplan160@comcast.net

This talk confused me because in his previous talk he rightly says that "this is how we create" taking bits and pieces from here and there may be not exact words but ideas, approaches language etc. I do think this is true because we all learn all craft from those who have come before us or published before us. So when in this piece he uses the word "plagiarism" which is a crime in writing rather than teaching us that to borrow is inevitable for we all have antecedents, he approaches us with the word early on "plagiarism." Obviously, this was unintentional, and she cried. I read constantly and on many subjects. I write non- fiction pieces and keep notes on what I read and what inspired me, but I am basically a poet and I can't imagine having to go over the thousands of articles, & books I have read to see if any of my poems embedded someone else's ideas or words that would stop me cold. I would not be able to write poetry if I did that. I already know that we all have antecedents but my poems form and fly onto the page as my creation. I can't even imagine if I had to worry about this sort of thing how I would have the courage to write poetry. It confused me that he felt it was Ok to write a piece in the first person as someone who in some way did actually feel the playwright had plagiarized him when he assured us in the previous piece that we all draw from our history of learning, reading, hearing whether it is music or another form and some is bound to wind up in our work recreated as something that is our own in the end. By publishing his piece and using her name and the name of her play he was getting back at her, not being so generous as he bids us be. In the end, he did feel she had stolen from him rather than complimented him. This caused me for the first time to feel he was contradicting himself, which we all do from time to time, but he made me feel he was not so generous and was being precious. I have to think about these two talks given back to back some more. Maybe I missed something.

A fellow student

I appreciate the way Malcolm asks us by restraint of words to allow life and others to speak for themselves.

Kara J.

Malcolm is completely transparent. No pretense, no prejudice, just straight talk. As a person, he's reached a level of self-actualization that few ever do. And he's got me using the word "interesting" a lot more than I used to. LOL!

Laurie O.

I think Mr. Gladwell is being very generous about the plagiarism, but if you've listened to all of his other lessons, then you know he likes to look at situations and people from unique perspectives. This is no different. In addition, I applaud him for choosing to be flattered by the act rather than furious, and choosing to forgive rather than condemn. The more I listen to Mr. Gladwell, the more I like him.

Luke

Oh, how I love What the Dog Saw. I enjoyed "The Pitchman and "Something Borrowed", but "Open Secrets" and "Million Dollar Murray" were excellent. Mr. Gladwell's writing just springs.

Elke N.

Hm... I just read the entire article, where Malcom states "Words belong to the person who wrote them." - Exactly. His point of view is amazing and I am happy for him that he obviously managed to forgive the playwright. But... the playwright not only stole from but even worse in my opinion from the psychiatrist, taking her persona one by on as the heroine of her play? Boah! Yes, inspiration for art must come from somewhere but there's no harm in stating where the inspiration came from. That's what forewords are for, just to name one of the many possibilities to clarify things.

Margot B.

Malcolm's article "Something Borrowed" takes a multi-faceted approach to the question of plagiarism. He has interwoven snapshots of people's minds, lives, and writings along with a thorough examination of intellectual property rights in various fields and situations. Finally, his brief description of Lavery gives the reader just enough information so we connect with her emotionally and understand her reasoning in not acknowledging Malcolm's article as a source in her play. As a reader, I get this sense that through the subtle interplay between storyline, facts about plagiarism and insights into people's minds, Malcolm's article brings me on a trajectory that he has intentionally plotted.