Friday, July 17, 2009

The anti-plagiarism day

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.


Tania Hershman said...

Sarah, a fascinating and telling story, I am so glad it worked out well. Yes, one of the biggest fears is not being plagiarised but doing it ourselves, and that, at least, is something we can at least try and control!

SueG said...

What an experience, and what a lesson to be learned. We writers live our lives taking in stimuli from all around us. of course, it will affect what we do and say and write. But plagiarism, as you point out so well, is a whole other kettle of yuck.

Nik Perring said...

What an utterly brilliant post (god I felt for you!) Thank goodness that those who worry are in the majority and those who steal (with intent) aren't.


Kathryn's Daily Writing Workout said...

It seems as if writers are compulsive, likeable rogues who randomly and naturally snatch moments.

If we were shoplifters in a mall of sweet shops, we'd be going around casually slipping a foam shrimp from one place, flying saucers from another and those banana things from the next. The important thing is that it would be a reflexive impulse, stealing singular sweets of virtually no cost. It would only be if we went into one shop and shiftily sneaked a whole jar of cola cubes under our jackets that it would be a significant and an immoral theft.

I'd just like to point out that I don't actually pinch sweets or anything. It's just that the other metaphor of trying olives on a market stall didn't appeal to me so much.

BJM said...

"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."

Speaking as a non-writer who enjoys your blog I offer an observation of my own experience (and possibly it may throw light on the reasons why some of your students appear to be born writers and some are not): processing my observations, conversations etc into a 'compost heap' is something I never do. Don't know why, but there you are. If anything, I do the opposite, i.e. I am always clearing out my particular bin. End result: whatever has to be said, I do using the fewest possible words and preferably a photo.

Debi said...

I'm loving the way this discussion has been so balanced, acknowledging the difference between stealing from life and stealing from each other.

jem said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Sarah. It's something I worry about quite a bit. Although I'm only writing for blogs and small magazines at the moment. Often with my haiku writing, there are so few words to play with, and we all encounter similar experiences we are trying to catch. Often I feel sure someone will have written this word for word. Often I worry that I am copying myself, something I wrote years ago. It's comforting to hear I'm not the only one.

[and sorry for appalling lack of readership and comments from me in quite a while!]

Sarah Salway said...

Thanks all, I've enjoyed reading all the other blogs, particularly the ferret story here -
Also interesting to find out that you can take out insurance against accidental plagiarism. Wow.

Matthew said...

"We want to 'do' the writing more than we want to 'be' the writer."

So few writers seem to hold this attitude, I really appreciate seeing it in your words. I first heard the idea in an interview with Terry Pratchett, who said, "Everyone wants to have written a book. No one wants to write one." I felt convicted when he said that and determined that I wanted to write, not to have written.