“Great poets don’t have time to be original.”—Robert Lowell
“This critic said, ‘This poet writes like everybody.’ Well, that’s the point.”—Derek Walcott
As a teacher for the last thirteen years, I feel I’ve been denied this privilege, this rite of passage all teachers must go through. I want to have one student—the surly-looking one, who sits in the back and constantly looks at his crotch because he’s texting—sitting across from me in my office, as I have that dreaded conversation. In my imagination, the student is a he, and he is leaning back in the chair, blowing his curly hair off his eyes. He has not a care in the world. He acts as if the gum on his shoe is more important than me, his creative writing professor. He knows he’s been caught. He knows what I’m going to say, which is: “Todd,”—in my imagination it’s always a Todd—“Todd, do you have something you’d like to say to me?”
He says no, shrugging as if there are great weights on his shoulders. I remain calm. I smile. I say, “Todd, you know what you did. It’d be so much easier if you came clean. Get it off your chest. I imagine the guilt is eating at you.” I shine the desk lamp onto his face, and Todd begins to sweat, little pearls dripping down his face. He chews at his nails. Fidgets in his seat. “Let’s try this again, Todd,” I say. “Do you have something to say to me?”
Finally, he comes out with it. Finally, he admits. And then he breaks down and cries.
“It’s okay, Todd,” I say. “Everything will be okay.”
But unfortunately, this has never happened. I’ve never had a plagiarist in my creative writing classes. Or, at least, I haven’t caught one.
We tell our students to read like writers, to analyze syntax and structure. We ask them to internalize language. We tell them to mimic style. We spend class periods dissecting language that is not our own. We talk about voice and tone and tension. We look at the magic of a short sentence, like the work of Hemingway—direct sentiment, verbs in full command without metaphorical frills. We call attention to the construction of the long sentence, like Stanton Michael’s satirical piece, “How to Write a Personal Essay,” when he bemoans the state of his sex life after his four-year-old son says he can’t swim because of his newly discovered hard-on. Or Mary Karr’s use of repetition and alliteration in the final sentence of chapter 13 of The Liar’s Club: “silliest thing, she said, no big deal, she said, then, nothing we couldn’t handle.” Or the perfectly executed, one-word paragraph—“Crazy.”—in Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army, which seamlessly captures our country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. We read these passages out loud, give voice and sound to other people’s words. We talk about words with so much depth that the language of others becomes our language. Sometimes, we don’t know it. Sometimes, it seeps out of our fingers and onto the page.
My wife Katie and I share students. She teaches poetry, and I, creative nonfiction. I know she teaches Vallejo’s poem “Black Stone Lying on White Stone.” She introduced it to me, and I imitated it once, to poor effect. Donald Justice imitated it, too, and it was great because—well—he’s Donald Justice. The second stanza of Vallejo’s poem is: “It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself with all the road ahead of me, alone.” The speaker of the poem is talking about the day of his death.
This semester, I asked my creative nonfiction students to write speculative segments as an exercise, to explore the path not taken, to utilize the words “maybe” and “perhaps.” Two of them turned in lines that read: It will be a ____________, because today, __________ . . . The syntax of the sentence is identical to Vallejo’s, yet their subjects were family vacations and wrangling cattle. But there they were: Vallejo’s lines. I asked both students about this, asked if they were taking poetry with Professor Riegel, asked if they had read Vallejo’s poem. Both nodded. When I told them how similar the line was, they turned red and said they didn’t mean to. Of course, they didn’t mean to. I believed them. As a parting joke, I said, “You see, writers do actually steal. We don’t borrow. I’ve been telling you that from the beginning.”
Mimetic theory intrigues me. Simply, it’s a theory that seeks to explain human desire and learning. From the time we are born, we are constantly imitating. It’s how we make sense of the world. We even learn what to desire by watching other people desire. Example: I wanted Air Jordans because my friend had Air Jordans, and because I wanted Air Jordans more Chicago boys wanted Air Jordans. In this way we begin to mimic each other’s wants.
This mimesis can easily be transferred to writing. Aristotle defined mimesis as the perfection and imitation of nature. Imitating becomes instinctual. One of my favorite writers is Maxine Hong Kingston. In The Woman Warrior she mimics the style of 1970s kung fu movies, which were becoming popular at the time she wrote the book. Later, in her memoir China Men, she employs the techniques of a western.
It’s not just my students. I steal all the time. Part of my process as a writer, from the very beginning, was stealing writing styles. As a young writer, I wanted to write like E.B. White because of books like The Trumpet of the Swan, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. In college, I read Raymond Carver voraciously. I wanted to tell a story utilizing as few words as possible. I then read William Faulkner because I wanted to capture a story in as many words as possible, then I read Twain to learn the art of dry humor, then Kingston for the sense of folktale, Lauren Slater for startling leaps of the lyric, Mary Oliver for the organic use of metaphor. I not only read these authors, I lived them. You will see these writers poking their heads from around my sentences. You will see them hide-and-seeking among my independent clauses, my on-purpose fragments, my choice of a paragraph break. These writers—and numerous others—have become part of my language lexicon. My voice is theirs. Their voices are mine.
Over my years as a creative nonfiction teacher, the best student work has consistently been imitation papers. When I taught at SUNY Oswego, the winners of the end-of-the-year departmental CNF awards were always imitation essays. I love to teach Anne Panning’s “Remembering, I Was Not There,” a narrative about how her parents met, but also a plea for them to turn their backs on their destiny, essentially on her own birth: “I wish to sit them both down, say don’t. You will destroy yourselves, everything dear. You will make your lives harder than they have to be.” Students love Panning’s essay, and they begin to interrogate their own lives in the same manner, often evoking Panning’s present-tense ghost voice talking to a past that doesn’t listen.
I’ve asked my students why an imitation paper brings out their best work. They say a couple of things: (1) It makes them look at language more closely than any other text they have read, because (2) they want to honor the writer and not do a bad job. They feel they are entering a pre-existing conversation.
Take a look at these two passages from two published memoirs by two different authors:
Ahead of me the shapes and colors suggest the sails of Tristan’s ship or an elephant’s ear floating in air, though in reality it is a middle-aged man in a London Fog raincoat, which billows behind him in the April wind.
Ahead of me shapes and colors suggested the billowing sails of a ship, or a zebra floating, when in reality it was a schoolgirl in the crosswalk.
Because I’m married to another writer, because we read each other’s work, we’ve influenced not only the topics we write about, but how we write. Just the other day I finished an essay about landscape and was very proud of the lyrical trick I did at the end. I was proud, but also skeptical. Something told me that this was not an original thought. (Really, what is?) I carried with me a sense of déjà vu. Somehow I had experienced this line before. As I always do, I gave the essay to Katie, my first reader. She said the essay was great—this is why we’re still married—especially the last line. “It’s from one of my poems, you know. Not exactly. But the rhythm of it.” I asked her if she wanted me to change it. “No,” she said. “If I sued, I know I’d get nothing.”
My former teacher, Lee K. Abbott, once said that when you sit at the computer, another writer is sitting with you. Are you Cheever today? Are you Didion, DeLillo? Who are you?
Right now, I’m entering my graduate student’s entire 300-page thesis about his time in prison into a computer program, SafeAssign, designed to detect plagiarism. It’s something thesis directors at my institution have to do with all theses. Included with his final thesis submission is a printout of these results. The program takes about sixty minutes to run through.
Here is the result: 100 percent of my student’s thesis is plagiarized, which is impossible. According to the program, he has plagiarized himself.
Unknown to me, he had uploaded the thesis into the program the day before.
As a joke, I ask him to come into my office. I look severe. I ask him if he has anything he wants to tell me. He’s shaken, asking me, what’s up, what’s up. “You’ve done a very bad thing,” I say. But I can’t keep the façade. I can’t torture my student a moment longer. Graduating MFAers are fragile butterflies. I break into laughter.
This is my one and only talk. His name is not Todd, but Alan.
A grasshopper looks like a leaf. The coral snake and milk snake are nearly identical except for the subtle changes of coloring. Hoverflies take the characteristics of Vespid wasps. In nature, animals utilize mimicry for survival.
In writing, writers utilize mimicry for survival. It is the reason most writers get asked at readings which writers have influenced their work. It is the reason this questions is so hard to answer. All of them doesn’t seem precise enough.
Where is that line between imitation and plagiarism? Language on a daily basis is being recycled. Our students are learning the language of the old and new masters; they are taking them in, mixing their words with the language they know, creating something new. Yet something there remains. Something familiar. Something like a forgotten first kiss. Like a well-known song sung in a different language.
To end like Wallace Stevens’s infamous poem:
It was afternoon somewhere. It was snowing. And it was going to snow. My students are writing with the shadow of other writers over their shoulder. They are writing.