Worries About Plagiarism and the Fear of Writing
I have had several offers to ghost write. Maybe
they would have been profitable. Trouble is, I
feel uncomfortable— nay, inept— at
taking someone elseís material and making it personal
enough for them. I cannot sing someone elseís
Turn the situation around a bit; I can't take
someone else's idea (yes, my faithful readers
offer them all the time!) and make it into a novel.
It goes something like this. "Carolyn, I read
your This Is the Place and I thought
you should write about the woman I met in Korea
who had been sold into sex slavery during World
War II." The story they want me to write is often
filled with poignant family events and emotions,
but it's their family, their story. Not mine.
I am fascinated, but not passionate enough about
the premise or the characters to spend one to
three years of my life writing a novel using that
idea. As a journalist, I could report it, but
I couldnít take it up as my own.
So, when I read about sensational cases of plagiarism,
I have trouble figuring out how these copy cats
even do it.
A few years ago Doris Kearns Goodwinís name famously
appeared in Time Magazine, the LA
Times, everywhere. Her work was analyzed
and dissected because she didnít put quotation
marks around someone else's words. She had referenced
their work in the footnotes but the quotes got
forgotten. If she didnít forget them, exactly,
then (as Goodwin claims), she didnít include them
because of a serious slip between her researchers,
their research, and the writing. No one is perfect
and when a writer starts relying on others to
do their grunt work, well, mistakes can happen.
That doesnít absolve a writer from the responsibility,
but Iím at least willing to give her the benefit
of the doubt on the mistake part.
We all— writers included— have brains
that absorb material both consciously and unconsciously.
That alibi was used only last year by a white
woman living in a middle class part of Los Angeles
who wrote a memoir claiming to be a black woman
from LAís east side. Though I generally try to
have compassion for authors, that particular slipup
crossed the line. Still, if a writer read something
years ago or used it in her daily life for several
decades, she may come to think it's her own or
maybe even forget to consider whether it is or
not. I try to give writers a bit of leeway when
One of the reasons I am lenient is the fact that
there is nothing completely new in the world.
Joseph Campbell has written volumes exploring
the great themes in literature and art, "themes,"
of course, meaning that they have been done over
and over again. The novel I am working on now
borrows from the plot line of the well-known Greek
myth about King Minos of Crete and the Minotaur,
and I certainly donít expect to get hit with a
One of the biggest problems with all the hullabaloo
about plagiarism is that it keeps many writers—usually
the new ones—from writing. Their brains
freeze in fear that they will be sued. They will
not explore the most vital issues inherent in
their work for fear that someone will see themselves
in it and be angry with them or—worse—that
it has been done before.
Then there is the residue concept. We stop writing,
stop putting material out into the universe, because
we fear it will be used by someone else. I object,
strenuously. Isn't our purpose in writing to share
ourselves? Don't we want people to read what we
have to say? If all of the above is even partially
true and we let fear keep us from writing and
publishing, the writer and the public both lose.
Once, when the Beatles were in litigation over
who controlled their works, John Lennon was asked
about how he felt about relinquishing his ownership.
He said that he did not own those songs anyway.
Once released for all to hear they belonged to
everyone who heard them.
In the spirit of Johnís sentiments, I urge readers
not to judge writers too quickly or harshly and
writers not to let the fear of plagiarism paralyze
them. Write from the heart. Then share it. Please.
(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists
a Tidbit that will help authors write or
promote better. She will also include a
Tip to help readers find a treasure among
long-neglected books or a sapphire among
I learned from my clients that writers hate
to write book proposals. They hate it without
even knowing how. Further, they donít want
to spend hours learning how by reading a
whole book. Thatís when the idea of helping
them learn to do a great one in only 20
minutes came to me. And with Amazon shorts,
itís frugal, too! Only 49 cents!
Tip: Avid readers will find the
best of new and classic literature at Magdalena
CompulsiveReader.com. Itís an excellent
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