Today is Anti-Plagiarism Day organised by Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works. There are lots of blog writers taking part - Sue Guiney, Tania Hershman, and Nik Perring, amongst others, and all have valuable things to say. (Other participants, please feel free to leave comments so we can keep the conversation going and apologies for missing you off.)
Because it's important to keep plagiarism at the centre of any conversation we have about writing.
Of course it's impossible to dictate where inspiration comes from - hopefully some readers will have had a story or an idea triggered off by one of the stories on this blog. And of course we all feed off each other in one way or another. But there's a world of difference between getting an idea and writing it in our own way, working it through our own creative process, and following our own themes ... to cynically stealing another writer's story.
You see, I think most genuine writers live in terror of unconscious plagiarism. We are anything but cynical about it.
I can remember one of my first readings. I was excited and nervous to be sitting on a panel which consisted of two well-published writers I particularly admired. I read my little story, and sat down knees shaking but happy. Then one of the well-published writers stood up and read an extract from her novel. I listened with absolute pleasure until she came to a paragraph about a kiss. Suddenly I thought I was going to vomit. I had forgotten this particular description but it seemed to me that it was word for word a description of an embrace I had written about in a story recently accepted for publication. I suddenly realised why it had seemed to flow so easily when I was writing it.
I wanted to leave the room right then and there. I felt humiliated, sick and ashamed. I didn't deserve to call myself a writer. But somehow, I made myself stay - not least because I wasn't sure my legs would still work.
Afterwards, I didn't hear any of the congratulations I received for my talk. I certainly couldn't speak to the well-published writer when she came up nicely to talk about my work. I couldn't even look her in the eye. All I wanted to do was rush home and read what I had written in my story. A nice bit of punishment to end the evening.
But when I did, it couldn't have been more different. I got hers, and I got mine and laid them down side by side. There wasn't even a word the same.
However, when I reflected on what had happened I realised that it was the emotion, the longing, the yearning I felt when I first read that paragraph in the well-published writer's work that I had wanted to recreate in my own. Without being aware of what was happening, I'd stored it up for use later. It was only when I heard her read it that I connected physically with the bit in my body that had been affected by her writing, and became so painfully conscious of what had happened.
I think this is something we often do as writers. We harvest snippets from everywhere, and then we process them in our own particular compost heaps until they come out in our writing. That's not plagiarism.
But I will never forget how awful it felt when I thought I had stolen this woman's work. The shame of it still makes my cheeks burn.
And this is why I think the anti-plagiarism day is so important, and thank Jane Smith for organising it. Because to imagine that there are people who want to be writers so badly that they will consciously take other people's work and not feel any of the emotions that I went through during that reading makes me mad.
More than that though, it makes me humble at how many of us there are who are still creating work, being generous about sharing it, taking the risk we do every day when we sit down at our notebooks and try fresh things. We want to 'do' the writing more than we want to 'be' the writer.
Someone I love sent me a Christmas greeting which read, 'May you make something new this year'. I love this. It is the perfect antidote to thoughts of plagiarism.
Let's make new things, and just as importantly, let's continue to risk sharing them.