My first year teaching high school English, I had a student in my sophomore honors class whom I’ll call Alex. Alex was the first kid I caught plagiarizing. The assignment was an RFTS–Reading from the Silence–an opportunity for kids to write an original anything: poetry, fiction, personal essays, song lyrics. I’d always write an RFTS too, usually a not-inappropriately-personal essay, some very terrible bits of fiction, an op-ed piece about the Oklahoma City bombing, a not-too-revealing poem inspired by the heartache of being dumped two times by one beau.
Each Friday, part of the class was set aside to share our RFTS writing. We’d turn the lights low and sit in silence until the first brave soul started reading his or her piece. Reading from the silence.
That was in Skokie, Illinois in the mid-nineties. At twenty-two years old, I was as green as could be. Even today I want to write apology letters to my guinea pig students in those early years of teaching.
But RFTS was, by most accounts, a big hit. Some liked the freedom of writing whatever moved them. Others liked to space out in a dimly-lit classroom. Still others liked that it was easy points; if the student wrote something original and thoughtful and legible, he earned 10/10. Some kids wrote a fifteen-page RFTS; some kids wrote a single, angst-filled sonnet about questioning authority or defying the school dress code. Some kids shared their work every week; some kids never shared.
My student, Alex, was not one who often shared during RFTS. He wrote analytical essays that felt like algebraic equations. He didn’t seem to love literature. He was a nice kid, a little nervous, but also kind, conscientious and intelligent. On his report card, I might have said the following: Alex completes daily assignments in a timely manner. Alex is an active participant in small and/or large group discussion. Alex communicates effectively. (1)
Alex also turned in an “original” RFTS that was the word-for-word lyrics of a James Taylor song. When I confronted him, he claimed innocence. Several times. Ah, and when the student doth protest too much, methinks there’s a confession to be made. (2)
“What we have here, Alex,” I said, “is failure to communicate.” (3)
And then I started singing James Taylor’s song.
“I didn’t know what to write,” Alex said, suddenly looking like he might cry. “I didn’t think you’d know a song from one of my parents’ albums.”
Sweet Alex used words written by someone else without attribution. That’s clear-cut plagiarism.
There are, however, times I worry that I am using other authors and other novels as inspiration and emulation … perhaps too liberally. Where’s the line that separates copycatting from paying homage to a work or an author?
I have never knowingly claimed the words of another writer as my own, but what if I read Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions when I need to rev up my creativity? What if I examine Barbara Kingsolver’s narrative points of view in The Poisonwood Bible and attempt to emulate them in my own fiction? What if I study John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green to understand why child narrators are suitable or unsuitable for adult readers? What if writing pages of Lily King’s Euphoria, word by word and sentence by sentence, helps me internalize syntax, diction and narrative stance? Is any or all of that considered copycatting?
In my heart of heart (4) using others’ work, even just as inspiration, doesn’t ever feel good. I don’t want to imitate or mimic. I want to be original. Don’t we all want to be mold breakers? Creators of the most novel of novels? I do. So when I use other writers as role models and their novels as examples, it feels a little pathetic, like I can’t quite hack it on my own.
On the other hand, most everyone in every profession and trade needs instructors and mentors. Athletes watch tapes of LeBron James’, Lionel Messi’s and Martina Navratilova’s games and matches. A young doctor doing his fellowship in cardiology learns techniques from the Chief of Cardiology. Gianni Versace was inspired and mentored by his mother, a seamstress who ran her own dressmaking business.
I would never disparage Messi for borrowing from Pele, or Wolfgang Puck borrowing from Julia Child. I want a surgeon operating on my heart to have trained with the world’s greatest heart surgeons. But for some reason using other creative people and their work as guides and models feels shady and shifty.
So I did a bit of research. And I felt a bit better. As it turns out, Gabriel Garcia Marquez says he learned to use James Joyce’s technique of interior monologue (and later, Virginia Woolf’s) in his writing.
Joan Didion says that when she was a teenager, she typed up Ernest Hemingway’s stories to understand how his sentences worked.
Jane Smiley used the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear as inspiration for A Thousand Acres. David James Duncan wasn’t shy as he borrowed Dostoyevsky’s themes and alluded to Dostoyevsky’s title in The Brothers K.
Passing off James Taylor song lyrics as one’s own is clearly wrong (and not very smart), but I also believe there is nothing new under the sun. (5) I believe there are no new stories; there are only well-worn stories told in new ways. I believe literary trends will come and go and come again, just as modern fashion magazines are currently filled with models wearing the crop tops and high-rise jeans reminiscent of the eighties. The horror, the horror! (6)
If exceptional contemporary writers admit that they stand on the shoulders of giants, (7) perhaps I should do as they do, learning from those far more experienced how to perform heart surgery on a story, how to tell when a character is undercooked, how to know when a manuscript is ready for the majors.
As for RFTS? I learned it from one of my mom’s friends, a veteran teacher of thirty years. Where did she get the idea? Maybe it was her own. Maybe she learned it from another teacher. Maybe it only matters that the idea was a very good one, one worth stealing, borrowing and imitating.
Your turn. Where, in your mind, is the line between imitating and emulating? When have you borrowed from or found inspiration in other writers, musicians or artists? Do you ever feel shady or shifty when you use others’ work to fuel your own writing?
1: Scholastic Books’ “101 Report Card Comments to Use Now” by Genia Connell.
2: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
3: Cool Hand Luke, 1967.
4: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2: “In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart…”
5: The Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 1:9: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. *And, thank you, Erin Bartels, for pointing out that I had initially missed this attribution.
6: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”
7: Isaac Newton in 1676: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Photo compliments of Flickr’s André Gunthert.