Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn 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 song.

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 I can.

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 plagiarism suit.

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.


Tips and Tidbits

(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 the newly-published.)

The Great First Impression Book Proposal by Carolyn Howard-Johnson 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!

Readers' Tip: Avid readers will find the best of new and classic literature at Magdalena Ballís Itís an excellent companion to


2009 Past Columns

© MyShelf.Com. All Rights Reserved.