A recent article pointed me at THIS Jonathan Lethem piece in Harper’s, from 2007. As I have a great deal of respect for Lethem I’m surprised I’d never read it before. However, 2007 was a very busy year, so I’ll just forgive myself here and we can move on. It is an eye-opening essay, on the inherent nature of plagiarism in literature. I know I’ve read references to it, but it’s worth every second to read the article in its entirety.
For myself, one of the worst feelings in the world as a writer is to learn that someone else has already written the story that I’m working on. It’s happened to me several times and it’s always painful – especially when it turns out that I’ve unconsciously swiped from one of my favorite authors. Ugh. But what’s really mystifying is when I accidentally ‘crib’ from stories and authors I’ve never heard of, much less read. It’s also horrifying, to no small degree.
Certainly, there is truth to the notion that great minds think alike, that some stories are just floating in the ‘aether’ – waiting for somebody to write it down, solidify the words into the correct order. Anyone who has ever created music, or art, or done improve theater can relate to the spontaneous connections – the magic that pulls different minds into one groove. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that it happens in writing.
But we writers are all so very special, aren’t we? So many writers I know take pride in their misanthropy – or, ‘isolation’, if you like. Yes, we may all be of a kind, but our kind must “stick apart”, as the Discordians like to say. We all share a common history, even if we’re scattered across the globe. There is a common tapestry of film, music and literature. Sure some of us don’t watch television, or listen to the radio, but none of us are truly alone. It’s impossible to isolate ourselves in a ‘Faraday cage’ where we receive no input from the world around us. And even if we could, who would want to live like that? You know who was a productive writer in that kind of isolation? The Unabomber, that’s who.
Lethem talks about Burroughs’ habit of cutting up passages of books, to work his writing ‘magic’. My own, self-serving take on that is this: we are all of us cutting up the books around us. No one writes in a vacuum and not one of us is an island. We are creatures who mimic and remix and reproduce with ease. It seems to be seated in our minds as deeply as language itself. The best and most noble of our own use their talents to guide this work, rather than be led by it. When we harness this to our craft and deliberately work with our abilities, surely the results are good. I mean, they are, right? Geez, I hope so.
Patrick Jennings-Mapp is a co-founder of and an editor for Escape Collective Publishing. There really isn’t much reason for him writing this byline thing, but since he’s fallen into the habit he’ll probably never stop. Also, he likes writing about himself in the third person.