February 05, 2008

Good Morning Writers: This is Your Brain on Cassie Edwards

It started with the Kaavya Viswanathan thing. It got worse more recently with the Cassie Edwards thing.

These plagiarizing chicks give me the creeps. Cassie Edwards has seriously been giving me nightmares.

I don't know why it even worries me. I never knowingly try and copy anything from anyone, I didn't even do it in school (although yes, Mrs. Henry, in the bathroom at fourth period that one day in 8th grade, Elizabeth Williams was copying my English assignment. Sorry. I so wanted her to like me... sigh). I'm totally above board, and I know it. But I'm completely in a panic when I hear people caught copying saying it was "accidental," and it was "unconscious." Writing about WWII means I'm not writing in a vacuum; everybody and his dog has something to say about "the Just War" and "the most violent war in Mankind's History." What if I say something someone else has already said? What if my unconscious walks into someone else's novel and goes shopping?

(My nightmares consist of a New Yorker screaming at me, and me with piles of unsold books falling on me. And they're hardback, too... I'm going to take a guess that the Brooklyn accent is S.A.M.'s, and he's already warned all of us in his little fold what would happen if we even had a hint of controversy about our work. Curtains, kids.)

Last week I finalized a page of acknowledgments for Novel #2, just to settle my nerves. They're an entire page long so far, as I sought to list every book, website, magazine article, movie, photograph from the National Archives; anything that could have sparked my creativity. I almost feel like I'm trying to say, "No, it wasn't me, it was the genius of the world that wrote this book!" But seriously: at this point, anything to stop the nightmares.

Now, just in time, the Guardian's Levi Asher has tips on avoiding author scandals! Here are the eight things every writer should remember:

1. Do not use the word "memoir" unless you mean it.

2. If you're not sure whether what you're writing is a memoir or not, guess what? It's a novel.

3. No more than half a page of plagiarism per book.

4. Don't make up exact dates that you can't remember. Instead, be general: "The most important day of my life was the day of my son's birth, in the summer of 2005 ..."

5. Just say no to sending a friend out in public with a wig as you.

6. If you're in a flame war and you're about to go sock puppet, take a 10-minute break and go to a coffee shop without a wi-fi facility. Maybe the walk will cool you down.

7. Go ahead and make up dialogue. Everybody except Tom Wolfe does.

8. Pick a name. "Benjamin Black is John Banville" is just not a good look.

I'm going to start doing a little yoga before bed. If nothing else, the extra stretching will help me dodge the falling tomes...


Brian Farrey said...

What Opal Mehta and Ferret Chick did is something I could never do. There's absolute calculation and forethought in that. However, I'm terrified of cribbing ideas and scenarios accidentally, not even realizing I'm channelling something I've read. I couldn't steal the exact words but I worry that some book I've forgotten I read (yes, there are many) will eek its way into my unconscious mind and manifest as an "original" idea.

There are times it just feels better to don a monkey suit, climb into a tree, and start whacking away at a typewriter and hope something brilliant pops up.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I think you're talking about cryptomnesia. If you've ever read Helen Keller's autobiography, you'll recall she had that very trouble.

Sarah Stevenson said...

You know, Brian, someone could probably make money off that very scenario as performance art... :) Of course you have first dibs, but if you don't want it I'll start sewing that monkey suit.

tanita✿davis said...

Cryptomnesia. Liquidambar, you're so smart you're scaring me.

And Brian -- I'll supply the typewriter...

Mary Witzl said...

I don't understand plagiarizing. Good liars may make good writers, but plagiarizing isn't even good lying: it's dumb lying -- especially if, like Kaavya Viswanathan, you're copying the work of someone who's already published! If you can't make something up, why in the world go into writing fiction?

Plagiarizing and the notion of copying others' work worries me too, though; I fear that I will have unwittingly absorbed something somewhere that will leak out of me when I am writing, and cause great anger and offense. But then I was born with a fully-formed guilty conscience.

Jen Robinson said...

They still have coffee shops without wireless?

MotherReader said...

I had to look up the sock puppet thing, but I'm glad I did. I feel so informed.

I can sympathize with your worries. I mean, hasn't everything been written before in some way? At least, that's the way it feels.