Monday, April 27, 2009

Stealing Words - Jessica Inclan

Stealing Words

For over twenty years, I’ve taught composition and creative writing at a community college in California. From day one, I was forced to learn how to spot the cheaters, the stealers, the plagiarizers, the ones with the answers written on their sleeves, the ones who “borrowed” a short story published in Family Circle or Women’s Day or Redbook (magazines they hoped I didn’t read) and turned in typed up on fresh new paper, double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 font.

My second semester teaching an introduction to literature class (back in the days before any of us knew what Times New Roman or Google were), I asked the students to try their hands at all the genres we’d been studying. I wanted my students to see the hard work it was to create an apt metaphor, a distinct character, or a line of realistic dialogue. The assignments included writing a short story, a poem, and a three page, one-act play.

For the short story assignment, I received the predictable coming-of-age in suburbia tales, first date sagas, evil parents against righteous teenager adventures. But there was one story that caught me, the story of a young woman, married with a small baby. The main is in that miserable part of a marriage, right after the baby is old enough to not be viewed as the second coming, the vernix is truly off the rose. No, the young woman is caught in the fugue state of little sleep and not enough money, her husband gone every day to work early and home late. Out of desperation, she contacts an old boyfriend, and they begin what might be seen as an emotional, telephone affair. She grows dependent upon his words of advice and the embers of their old connection, a sexual, physical, and emotional connection that they slowly talk back to crackling life.

One day, on the eve of going to meet this old flame for lunch, she climbs up to the attic and finds a box of mementoes from her courtship with her husband. In this small, hidden leather box are love letters and ticket stubs and an invitation from their wedding. A dried flower from the first bouquet her husband ever gave her. A card from a romantic restaurant. Sitting on the floor of the attic, she goes over her relationship, and when she comes down from the attic, she knows what she has to do. She calls her former flame to cancel the date, and when her husband comes home, she sits him down and begins to tell him the story I’ve just recounted to you above.
The implication is she wants to make things better. She brings him closer to her, and the story ends with hope.

My goodness, I thought. How impressive! What a great attempt by a student.

I put down the story and thought about the student who had written it. A dark, hunched-over girl who slunk into class just barely on time, she didn’t speak up in class very often, and now I knew why. She was a writer, an introvert who held her cards close to the vest. An introspective, thoughtful young woman, who was absorbing all that I had to teach her, a student who new an apt metaphor already. But she’d never mentioned anything about her aspirations and dreams of writing, and I made a note to sit down with her before the end of the semester and encourage her ambitions.

A week after returning the stories back to the students, I was in the dentist office, waiting for my appointment, and I picked up a recent edition of a women’s magazine. I flipped through the pages searching for the fiction, settled back in the hard plastic chair, and started to read the short story entitled The Memory Box, which was the story of a young mother and her old high school flame.

Just like that, the mystery of the amazing story by the reticent student was solved. And instead of sitting down with her during office hours to urge her forward toward publication and an MFA, I failed her on the assignment and told her if it happened again, she would fail the class.

Usually I don’t have such divine intervention to spot a stolen story. More often than not, their plagiarized work does not appear in national magazines. Despite the work it takes to catch my students at this duplicity, I understand their motives because I am a former cheater. In college, I took a class called Sociology of the Work Force. The biggest assignment that semester was to go into a local business and interview the work force, finding out the ins and outs of the business and the problems and joys of working there. I was to mingle with the staff. I was to find out how the business ran. Then I was to write it all up in no less than 15 pages.

I was a freshman and had just moved to Turlock, a little California Valley town, the university sitting in the middle of former farm land. At the time of the assignment, I didn’t know anyone well except the guy who lived downstairs who played music all night long, and I was just getting over the shyness that disappeared only after the ignominy of childbirth in a hospital.

But at that time, I was afraid to go to a tire store to buy tires much less walk into a place where I had no true business at all. During the first few weeks after receiving this assignment, I drove my 1972 VW Squareback into town after school, parked on Main Street, and walked toward an insurance company office, my hand almost touching the door knob. But then I faltered, freaked out, stopped dead still. I ran back to my car, drove home, and ate a bag of popcorn instead.

So what I did instead of pushing myself to and through that insurance office door was to create an office based on that building and what I’d seen from the outside. I invented the various people who worked there: The office manager, the clerical staff, the phone operator (this was before digital anything). Using my experience of working at Traveler’s insurance for two years before I went back to college, I fabricated a thriving company, imagining the pitfalls of an all female clerical staff run by a tyrannical office manager, all of them being directed by a gigantic, octopus of a home office located in Connecticut. I imagined their lives, their martial status, the number of children each had. I created dialogue, suffering, and success.

I worked late into the night, writing up all my “findings,” and then I turned in my paper, later receiving an A. No, not just an A, the best grade in the class and a round of accolades from my professor and the class.

So I cheated, but I didn’t steal as my short story purloining student did. I didn’t find a similar project written up in some obscure sociological journal, a journal only found then on microfiche. Maybe the difference between cheating and stealing seems slight in this moral morass, but if I plagiarized, I plagiarized from my own life, my own thoughts. I might be a cheat, but I don’t borrow without asking. I said yes to myself, out of desperation.

So when I notice that a paragraph in a student essay springs out of nowhere, a blooming rose in the middle of a fallow field, I shrug and then do what I have to. The student and I have that serious talk, the one where he starts to sweat and his lower lip trembles. I explain how wrong it is to take someone else’s hard work and copy and paste it as if it were his own. Yet the world outside the confines my college setting isn’t providing a very good example for my writing students. We can’t pretend that students aren’t being shown that professional writers plagiarize, too.

Last year, there was another author stink about plagiarism. The romance writer Nora Roberts, Newsweek, The New York Times, and the blogsphere took on the case of writer Cassie Edwards full force, and the accused and internet-convicted writer was shamed out of book contracts (Signet dropped her after the furor didn’t die down after three months) and support because she was caught stealing research about blackfooted ferrets. After that discovery, bloggers googled big sections of her work and came up with several sections where other writers’ work was used without due credit. Edwards claimed that she didn’t realize that she was supposed to credit her sources. “When you write historical romances, you’re not asked to do that,” she said.

This stealing of work not one’s own comes up now and again in the published works world. This habit people have of borrowing from others is an old, very old habit of us humans. Shakespeare used pretty much every old story in the books to create his tales. Research the entirety of his plays, and if they aren’t based on old plays written one hundred years earlier, he’s stealing from Homer. But in recent times, we've decided it is a bad practice—at least, we give lip service to its wrongness. But stealing is wrong, especially when someone tries to pass of words as his or her own in order to 1) make money or further a career or 2) get a grade. If you want to copy a little love poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and put it in a Valentine's Day card to try to show off for your true love, well, I think the world will forgive you. And the truth is, the world will never know, as poor Elizabeth has fallen from popular consumption.

When you are writing for the world or an audience of more than one, watch out.

So back to the imbroglio with the romance writer: Edwards was accused of stealing from the novel Land of the Spotted Eagle by Luther Standing, plopping sections of his work into her own. I read through the text she allegedly "wrote" and the text she supposedly "stole” on several web sites, and reading about her actions gave me the same feeling I have each time I collect papers and find stolen paragraphs here and there. Distress and irritation.

With Google, it is hard to cheat and steal your way toward a novel. And with practice, it’s easy to spot a phrase not the writer’s without the assistance of that fabulous search engine. My students don't seem to realize that if they email frequently me in one particular style, with a particular diction and syntax, it will strike me as odd when I read their final essays containing writing diametrically opposed. Suddenly, they write better than I can, with complex and compound sentences, literary allusion, nuance, and verve. What were they thinking? Maybe they assumed I wasn’t paying much attention?

Or rather than stealing an entire essay as that seems like too much, they cram others’ ideas in their essays here and there, lifting up the seams of their writing and slipping in an eloquent sentence or two. What do they imagine? That I won’t notice their particular styles and voices?
There I am in my office, a paper in my hand, reading along with the student’s unique style, and then all of the sudden, poof! a perfect paragraph, full of vocabulary I don't even know, something like acidulous. It’s like finding a pearl in the middle of a soft and gooey oyster. Was I born yesterday? Am I such a rube? Please, give me some credit to be able to spot these things.

Last week, when writing about the play Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg, an international student from a country quite unacquainted with British diction and syntax wrote that Mason, one of the main characters, was a “Nelly queen.” The following paragraph was likewise filled with expressions and sophisticated sentence variation I had never seen before from this particular student. All I had to do was call him to my desk, point to the phrase, and he gave it all up.

“I wish I had a good excuse,” he said. “But I was so tired of thinking in English, I felt my head was going to explode. Like a balloon. So I borrowed someone else’s idea.”

Borrowed indeed.

Now for the romance writer, I can see that she might have been under some stress as well, even though she knows English and is writing in English. She was probably contracted for three books a year, and her specialty is the historical. Setting is big with this writer and with historical romances. So, there she was, trying to figure things out about the terrain, flora, and fauna of the space her Native American characters were roaming through, and she realized she didn’t have a clue about the poor little black-footed ferrets and didn’t have time to travel to the Dakotas to research (though she probably had enough dough to go). So she flipped open Luther Standings’
books and started copying.

This won’t speak well of me, but I have been known to tell my students this dictum: “If you are going to cheat, cheat well. Cheat smartly. Don’t make it obvious.”

Then I tell them, “Cheating smartly is harder than getting an A all on your own.”

And this Cassie Edwards? A professional writer? How hard would it be to do a better job of cheating, re-crafting the sentences so that they are almost hers, and then giving credit to Mr. Standing at the back of the book where credit is due? I think that's an easy thing to do.
Writers are greedy. Writers tend to think of the world as their palate. A word here, a phrase here, a thought there. A situation, a character, a scene. Tragedies can be occurring around us and we are thinking, I have to write about this. We pluck scenarios from the air, scribble them down on note cards or receipts, and go home and use them with impunity.

We say, “Wait! What did you say?” And then we run off to find a post-it.

We sit at luncheon tables and argue about who gets to write about what.

“I heard it first,” we say. “It’s mine! Mine!”

But sometimes we take this practice too far. I had a writer friend, a fellow teacher, who for years would take ideas I verbalized and use them in her poetry. One day I’d say something pithy or profound, and the next, I would read the line in her brand new poem. I am younger than she, and twenty years ago, I didn’t have the fortitude to tell her that no, I wasn’t thrilled she’d used my remark in her poem. No, it was not a gift to me, thank you very much.

I just let this practice continue, watching my dreams, my thoughts, my ideas rush through her work like water. But when we shifted to communicating more through email than actual conversations, I would find whole sentences I’d written appearing front and center in her work. Now she’d crossed the line into plagiarism. One time I wrote to her about what I believed in, and the next day came a poem via email titled “Credo,” which was basically my original email reshaped. The final straw came when I wrote to her in an email that I was exhausted and that “Sitting in a bar in Paris right now, alone, with a cigarette, a book, a glass of deep red wine, and the promise of someone coming to find me later, later, would be splendid.”

The next morning, I clicked on the blog site that both of us post on and saw her blog for the day, a poem entitled “Cigarette in Paris.”

After that, after twenty years, I finally told her enough was enough. She wrote back to tell me that I was over-reacting, that writers can use the universe in their work. That this great, big, wonderful planet is our paint box.

After I found air to breathe, I sat staring at her email, wondering how my writing students would ever figure out the implications of stealing if my writer friend--if my professor of English friend--could so easily cross this line. Our friendship will likely not recover.

As for my composition students? Many of them are from other lands, coming here after taking English for a couple of years at home, and plopping themselves into higher level composition classes because they need to get in and out of college because it's expensive to live in the United States and go to college. They have visas and families at home, and they don't have an unlimited amount of time to learn the language. Mom and Dad have said four years and four years only, sonny. Mom and Dad have also said, “You better get all A’s.”

They pay a very high tuition, even at the community college, and they have living expenses as well. With a writing class, sometimes a student can pass because there are often multiple opportunities for revision. English teachers are nothing if all about process, process, process. Drafting, peer editing, revisions 1, 2, and 3. A student can revise, go to a tutor, get help, and craft an essay that can get a passing grade. Or, he or she can borrow a paper, buy a paper, steal a paper.

Often, I receive emails at the end of a semester that go something like this: "I was just wandering why I get C in my final grade? I felt that I participated quite many of times and only one absent day."

I want to say to this student who is wandering, “You did great. You earned a B, and that in and of itself shows how hard you worked on every paper. You learned a lot about writing and worked on your English. I really liked you a lot, your nice smile, your willingness to listen, though I wasn't always sure you understood what I was saying. In your writing, you showed me your original, true voice, and it was lovely. But you don't have the essence of the English language down at all. In fact, I didn’t read one sentence that followed correct English syntax from capital letter to period. You need to stay here a couple more years and go back to the classes that you seem to have already gone through and take them over. Yes, I know you've already taken them, but it didn't quite stick. Neither did this one you just took with me. So give it a go. Give the language acquisition a chance to truly work. Don't expect miracles from yourself. If I was trying to take this class in China, I would have been kicked out the first day. Give yourself some slack!”
But I am never quite this honest. Instead, I talk about points earned and such, and I know that this student--who wants to transfer to the local university--is upset. Stress and pressure. Will he plagiarize next time in order to get an A? Will he turn into a repeat stealer?

Will the romance writer learn from her public humiliation? Apparently Nora Roberts was plagiarized by another writer, and that writer is doing quite well, thank you, churning the books out as we speak, making the big dollars even though she’s been caught cheating.

Will my former friend continue to take others’ ideas? Will she see that doing so without attribution, acknowledgement, or asking is wrong? Will she learn that the world is not her paint box and that sometimes, we need to ask before we decide to paint the tree?

Often, we wish we didn’t have to do the work we need to in order to get the work done. We want to be like the cobbler and his wife who awaken in the morning to find that elves made shoes all night long, leaving the whole day wide open and task free. We want the work to appear, the ideas to sit in neat and organized packages on the workbench. The work we need to do is long and arduous and asks more from us than we think we have inside. Our heads are going to explode.
We want it over, now. We want to move on and get the grade and the money and the publications and push forward. We want to avoid embarrassment and discomfort. We don’t know how to tell a story, any story. We don’t want to walk into a room full of strangers and ask to interview them about their lives and employment.

We don’t want to do the heavy lifting.

But cheating doesn’t work except to provide us with an example of something that is counterproductive. After my own fine, glorious stint at cheating, I never did it again. After holding my made-up paper in my hands and listening to my professor laud me, I vowed to change my ways. In later years, I realized that though I might have jumped started my life of writing fiction, I didn’t stretch toward or even near the assignment. I learned that when we cheat, we cheat ourselves and everyone else. We don’t learn. We don’t grow. We stop moving right there, on the very spot where the sentence took the turn toward someone else’s hard work. The second that we lasso the words that belong to another, we let go of our own talents and hopes. We go into hiding behind those stolen words, hunkering down like trolls under a bridge, knowing that if we aren’t caught, we should be.

I don’t know if my writing students see plagiarism the way I do, and I know I can’t stop it, not with the world telling us it’s not so bad--unless we get caught. But I will continue to read for those moments when my students let go of their own ideas and latch onto others’, and I will help them, stop them, tell them to go back another time, and try again.


Estella said...

I remember the to-do caused by the plagarism of Nora Roberts work.
I have read the other author and cannot see why she felt she had to steal someone elses work.
Nice book trailer.

Terry S said...

Your comments are right on the mark. In addition to what you've written today, I think the culture of entitlement that has become the "norm" in our society is also a contributor to why many truly believe they aren't doing anything wrong. Well, that and simple laziness.