Avoiding Plagiarism Sometimes Requires a Leap of Faith
Writers who don’t trust themselves may wind up trapped in other people’s ideas
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
A month shy of my high school graduation, I was nearly cast out of the National Honor Society. My AP English teacher had accused me of plagiarizing sections of my senior thesis on Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina. This wasn’t my first assignment demanding an engagement with the work of other scholars to analyze literature. At my élite high school I had submitted countless essays following the strict rules of a thesis, leaning on textual examples for support. I usually received A’s or A-minuses and heaping praise. But writing this essay, I teetered at the edge of self-doubt.
My teacher Ms. K. confronted me privately, asking whether all the words in this paper were mine. I didn’t understand the question — words didn’t belong to any of us. Ms. K. probed me to admit whether I’d failed to put passages of text in inverted commas, had failed to attribute ideas to various sources. I politely explained that what she’d read was entirely original, that all the words were mine. I suspect Ms. K. remained unconvinced and would have fed my paper into a software program to detect evidence of plagiarism, if one had been available to her.
My copy of Anna Karenina, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, still sits on my bookshelf in my childhood home. Anna’s story enthralled me. I was all too excited to see how she refused to admit her unconscious desires to herself. The novel’s pages bear my marginalia in perfect, penciled handwriting, along with the index cards of quotes, citations, notes, and themes I’d traced while reading the novel and secondary sources. I’m too haunted, however, to revisit the paper, too afraid to remember whether I’d lifted entire sentences and ideas and arguments out of scholarly works, along the lines of: “Anna Karenina is beset with foreshadowing; we learn that the protagonist is doomed early in Tolstoy’s story; Anna’s passion makes her a fated character.”
I’d followed each assignment leading up to the final paper: compose a thesis statement; assemble an annotated bibliography; organize notes on index cards; produce an outline; submit a rough draft; revise; resubmit. But we hadn’t read Anna Karenina as a class. How would I know whether my thinking was accurate, other than to consult what had been previously thought? I spent time in the public library’s stacks. I grabbed Harold Bloom and others on Anna Karenina. I quickly found myself overwhelmed by the brilliance of some of their ideas. I was too paralyzed to write something as intelligent and stylish and sparkling about Anna Karenina, which Edmund White considers “the greatest novel in all literature.” After all, what more could be said about the pathos of his protagonist’s life?
More than the guilt that I’d been suspected of cheating was the shame I wasn’t credibly attached to good scholarship. What was so unconvincing about those words, that I couldn’t have written them myself? Couldn’t they have been mine? Or was that entirely beyond the realm of possibility? Put another way, was I stupid for getting caught, or just plain stupid, lacking intelligence?
The novelist André Gide writes that “everything that needs to be said has already been said.” It’s even possible that nothing new can be said of plagiarism. In 2007, Jonathan Lethem wrote an essay titled “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” making a case, through carefully researched examples, for the “generative power of appropriation across artforms [sic] and throughout history” (a line I borrowed from Lincoln Michel’s essay on plagiarism, in which he also cites Lethem). The key to the essay, however, is expertly withheld until the very end, where Lethem, as he writes, “names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I ‘wrote’ (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way).” Once one’s bitterness dissipates, the reader begins to enjoy the subtle pleasure of being toyed with. We see the history of artistic and literary production as nothing but a history of imitating, copying, lifting, and stealing. Lethem’s sleight of hand shouldn’t surprise us: the very illusion of an original, albeit heavily referenced, essay is exposed in the essay’s subtitle: “A Plagiarism” (not “On Plagiarism”).
My high school thesis reflected a crisis of voice. The heterogeneous amalgamation of scholars, some of whom I’d left unnamed in places, inserted into the fabric of my essay, became awkward interruptions into my argument, anonymous influences speaking in strange keys, pastiched screeches that created little tears in the text I was trying to stitch together.
I felt the pressure to offer insights at the level of experienced scholars because I imagined myself as already at such a plane. My teachers’ estimation of my precocious intellectualism, which I came to know of myself, set me up to resist doing the difficult work of writing. If I was good at writing, as I was said to be, I must not be seen struggling. And thus we arrive at the question of discipline. Plagiarism demonstrates intellectual laziness. I had yet to learn that the sustained activity and dedication necessary to creating good work — be it scholarship, literature, or criticism — is a measure of one’s own capacity for self-discipline. To this day, I wonder whether I have what it takes.
“Original” has come to mean “authentic” (that is, distinct from a copy). But according to Raymond Williams, “original” separated from its root, “origin,” coming to mean “a kind of work distinguished by genius, growing not made and therefore not mechanical [that is, an imitation].” The irony is that no one can claim to create work out of thin air. Modern scholarship acknowledges this more explicitly, having set in place a formal system to cite and attribute sources to their original author. Art, on the other hand, alludes to earlier works, but it is precisely that: a playful reference suggesting possible connections between compositions and traditions. Allusions, if done well, almost never inspire censure of a work’s unoriginality. Rather, they bring pleasure, find openings in texts, and allow space for readers to create new meanings.
Anxiety abounds when considering whether anything we create is ever truly original. In an age choking on staggering volumes of information, combined with unprecedented access to said information, the potential for infinite reproductions proliferates and the potential for plagiarism troubles us. With a few keystrokes, one can trace an idea through libraries, through sources over time. Added to this anxiety is a deeper paroxysm: in a cultural marketplace that aggressively polices ownership, and in which stories are property rather than shared amongst a commons, plagiarism and piracy are to be vigilantly avoided, and even dreaded at all costs.
Despite my best efforts, variations (even misreadings) of ideas have become lodged in my mind over time. The terrifying thought that I may utter something I thought I was the first to think, without being accused of plagiarism, speaks to an even more frightening one: the human mind is fallible. Unable to sufficiently organize and regulate which ideas a mind created and which it lifted from another’s, the mind leans on the technology of citation. It follows standards, practices, norms, or rules to avoid the possibility of doubt, or to acknowledge the presence of secondhand ideas. Footnotes and bibliographies alleviate the reader of doubt, while also lending a scientific air of traceability and reproducibility to scholarly work. If citations are roadmaps, I turned in a thesis that covered my tracks, and ignored the adage we heard in math but never in English: “Show your work.”
“Do we need all this stuff from Orwell?”
A professor of creative writing and I were sifting through a draft of a personal essay I had workshopped earlier that week. I’d been clinging to a passage I’d attributed to George Orwell, in which he recounts the days and lonely nights he spent at a boarding school in his youth. I held onto Orwell’s memories in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” to strengthen my own experiences adjusting to a new school in seventh grade. I’d sat for an entrance exam (as Orwell had), wrestled with the certainty of my own childhood memories (as Orwell had), and questioned the class disparities I saw around me (as Orwell had). I’d held onto his words to historicize my own experiences, to show that they weren’t particularly unique to me, to resist the trap of solipsism.
“I want to show that I’m well-read,” I told my professor. “That I’ve read what’s come before me, what I’m in conversation with. I don’t presume to be the only person in the world who’s felt isolated in a new school.”
“Your language proves you’re well read,” she replied.
There were joys, it seemed, in the suggestive registers of writing. Still, I held onto Orwell’s words for another round of feedback, subjecting a subsequent draft to my cohort at a summer workshop. One of them mentioned I’d gotten the point of Orwell’s essay wrong. Out of embarrassment, I excised the allusions all together in the next draft. But it was another student’s comment that truly freed me the obligation to defer to those who had come before me.
“You may not think so, but your story has so much heart,” she said to me, outside the classroom as I reviewed everyone’s feedback. “It’s not only that your particular story is only yours to tell, which makes it original,” she continued. “It’s how you tell it.”
In this moment, I began to understand that I didn’t trust my own memories and experiences as legitimate. And while a critical essay and a personal one have different aims, what I’m struggling to tell in this essay comes down to the “how,” or what others might call style.
I knew I had an ulterior, more ambitious motive by invoking Orwell: I sought to connect myself to him, adopt him as a creative mentor, form an intellectual lineage. I’d renounced my senior-year English teacher Ms. K. after I’d disappointed her, and I was since searching for someone to learn from. Why do writers cite the greats at all, if not to choose their parents?
Tristes Tropiques, first published in 1955, is the only ethnography written by French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, based on fieldwork he conducted in the Amazon fifteen years earlier. A striking passage early in the masterpiece, while Lévi-Strauss’ ship is crossing the Atlantic, eases the discomfort I have with the sentences I quoted above, taken from a story I wrote when I was nine; we were to describe a sensational experience that happened to us. I’d recounted the moment I saw a sunset in 1990 at Myrtle Beach, with the distinct memory of my teacher’s own description of a sunset lingering in my mind. I remember my teacher articulating a sunset while I struggled to find a memory of my own. I wrote about a sunset I’d seen because my teacher’s example of her experience confirmed to me its worth.
Encountering an enchanting sunset of his own, Lévi-Strauss is moved to record the nearly ineffable scene, a vivid display of “fire first golden, then vermilion, then cerise.” We see the same sun differently. With granular precision and patience, Lévi-Strauss traces the geometric, atmospheric, and chromatic changes unfolding before him. Despite these incremental transformations, he realizes, as I did, how “in the end it was difficult to distinguish one color from the next.”
I’ve taken great pains, as early as fourth grade, to present myself as ordered, precise, and in control of my own self-expression. Writing on the page has allowed me to enact this persona more convincingly. Each letter I wrote by hand, in my sunset storybook, was perfectly formed, each letter set on a delicate lean. And the cover’s illustration was stylized, almost desperately so. A child frustrated with his inability to describe his own experiences found solace in embellishment and excess: gratuitous swirls in a range of colors circled the page, as if that’s how a sunset appeared. I didn’t trust my writing to hold weight, and so relied on style to do the work.
Where the rest of my story can be forgotten, a sentence from my author’s bio bears quoting: “When he grows up, he wants to be an artist, a brain surgeon, an author or an entomologist.” This self, anticipating a future self, intrigues me. Hidden among these words seems to be the origin of a self, the kernel of an author or artist, germinating, eager to bloom.
I learned in my youth not to throw anything away. I’ve recently begun lifting schoolwork from my childhood home to assemble an archive of my own: a photocopied lab notebook from a summer internship at Harvard Public Health; English papers on Lady Macbeth; graceless translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Devoted to the written word and obsessed with my own scholastic prowess, I imagine these files track my own intellectual development, each paper a record of what I thought I knew and how elegantly I strove to say it. As deeply as these papers disappoint me, they record, in addition to what I thought, who I was: a student, who, if not all that insightful or original, was at least docile enough to be pushed, and insecure to the point of impressing those in power.
Still, a voice amidst these essays strains to be heard. Unable to edit my word count, I used to ignore the double-spacing rule and I reduced my font size. I was both verbose and vain. Surely I wasn’t fooling my teachers: the page looked cramped, as if my words were struggling to breathe. I wonder, however, whether hovering in the lessened space between minimized text was a shadow of the writer I might become. What if I’d been honest about what I didn’t know, and about what I sought to know? I simply wasn’t taught, or I had yet to realize, that the shadowy space of uncertainty would always yield originality.