The Accidental Plagiarist


As I was taking out the trash just now I realized that I had another poetry dream last night, so maybe I should write about it.

In the dream I was the contemporary Tim, but placed backward in time about fifteen years to a friend’s garage where we used to hang out. A group of us were watching Napoleon Dynamite, grainy on one of those old-fashioned projectors, and I realized that part of the dialogue was the first half of my poem “Cheers,” which I’d just read at some event. Everyone turned to look at me with such disappointment — I was a plagiarist.

That’s all I remember from the dream, and there’s still a lingering feeling of guilt, as if it’s really true. I’m tempted to run to the video store just to check.

This has actually happened to me once before, in real life. I wrote a piece about Megan leaving again for school after our first summer together, that ends with the main character holding the “simple resistance of a pillow to his chest.” I submitted the poem to Crab Creek Review before I happened to reread Jane Hirshfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt, only to realize that I stole that line. I hadn’t meant to steal the line, of course — it had probably been a year or two since I’d read it, but the little neuron bundles for each of those words had been linked in my brain, and they just sounded right together.

So I was embarrassed. But magnify that embarrassment fifty-fold a few weeks later, when CCR accepts the poem, and the editor jots down “loved the last line.”

A million thoughts ran through my head: What should I do? Should I tell them and change the line? Pretend I hadn’t noticed? Did the editor know already? Was he messing with me, referencing that line? Was this punishment? Was this proof of divine will? Karma? And then of course — if the best line in the poem was stolen, does that mean I really suck as a writer? Are all of my decent lines stolen from someone else??

I ended up confessing, and changed the last line to “cool insistence,” which I also have to confess, isn’t nearly as good.*

It reminds me of a great essay by my friend Erik Campbell, that appears in the current issue of VQR, “The Accidental Plagiarist: The Trouble With Originality.” I was hoping they’d provide full text online, but apparently you have to subscribe to read it. So subscribe. Or try not to spill your coffee on it at Barnes & Noble.

Erik describes the frustrating experience of thinking you have an original thought, that you’ve written something no one else has, only to find out that, nope, you weren’t original after all. The more you read, the more you realize it’s all been written before. Is it possible to write anything that isn’t just paraphrasing someone else’s brilliance?

The difference here, I think, is that both of my situations — the pillow, the dream — are physiological, rather than epistemic. The way our brains organize information, words are naturally bundled together. “Fire together, wire together.” Songs and phrases and little snatches of dialogue are always getting stuck in our heads — it’s the very root process for acquiring language. When we hear a group of words strung together, it’s easier recognize that same group the next time.

Incidentally, this is the major downfall of cliche — cliches are already so wired into our brains that they cease to invoke any relevant neurological response, becoming mere place-holders for information that’s already been organized.

What I’m getting at, I guess, is that I’m not surprised that this kind of micro-level accidental plagiarism occurs — I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Or maybe it does, and we just haven’t noticed yet.

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*The poem in question, “The Memory of Water,” appeared in CCR almost two years ago, which is plenty of time for me to feel comfortable reposting it here. Come back in a day or two and I’ll put it up.

4 thoughts on “The Accidental Plagiarist

  1. Tim,

    We do plan to make Erik Campbell’s essay “The Accidental Plagiarist: available online — we just haven’t had time yet. Our Spring issue is at the printer now and we hope to have a selection of pieces from the issue posted to our website by the end of March. — Kevin M., VQR

  2. i think this happens very often. and i think it’s almost impossible to have a 100% original thought because all of your thoughts come from a frame of reference.

    Partially, i think that this is what makes art good–communicable/universal. if the thought was 100% original, then people wouldnt understand it, thus defeating the purpose…know what i mean? Which is why I think it’s okay, and almost important to make these “paraphrasing slip ups” every now and then.

    “cool insistence” is also good, maybe not AS good, but still quite good

    Angela (lj_browniegirl322)

  3. Jesus, Tobias Wolff wrote a novel, Old School, about this exact thing.

    But the kid doesn’t catch it and winds up being expelled from prep school in his senior year, loses his scholarship to uni and becomes a slouch.

    You know, I wrote a poem and did this on purpose. I called it, “Under the Influence” and dropped all sorts of hints. Few if any catch it, even editors. It’s been published twice and neither editor noticed that I lifted nearly an entire stanza from Frost’s The Road Not Taken.

    Sad commentary on how poorly read the so-called literary people are now a day.

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