Friday +_Dr. S O'D = Writer's Therapy
I occasionally give workshops and seminars in my Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be notified about upcoming events, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
Dear Dr. O'D,
Sometimes, when I am writing, words and phrases come to mind so clearly and vividly that I worry I am unconsciously plagiarising them from something I once read and stored away in some part of my mind. This alarms me. I know it can happen, too -- the case of
Helen Keller is a cautionary tale for us all. I have even gone so far as to Google certain turns of phrase, to assure myself either that it is unique to me and I made it up, or that it is in common usage and therefore not something I am inadvertently stealing from any one specific source. Usually, this all works out for me. But sometimes a real paralyzing fear
creeps in, and I can hardly write a word for fear that I have stolen the words I am writing down. I can only compare this feeling to the sense that a friend with OCD has described to me, a sense she has when leaving a store that she has forgotten to pay for something and is about to be arrested as a thief. How can I reassure myself that I am not a thief?
At Least, I Hope I Am Not a Thief, But Maybe You Have
Already Received a Letter Just Like This One and I
Read It In Your Column
As you know, I have held on to this letter for several weeks without responding to it. I have been stalling, hoping to find some concrete reassurance and advice to allay your fears (which, believe me, are not unique to you).
I wish I could tell you that your worries have no basis in reality. However, in addition to Helen Keller, Mark Twain and George Harrison are known to have fallen victim to cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism. Twain accidentally appropriated the dedication of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s In the Sandwich Islands for Innocents Abroad, and Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was an unintentional clone of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” More recently, it’s possible that Bob Dylan and Kaayva Viswanathan thought they were creating original material when they reproduced others’ words.
Psychologists believe there is an evolutionary basis for cryptomnesia in child development. Children learn idiomatic speech, social norms, and other important behavior primarily by imitating their parents and other powerful or influential adults. Once the behavior is learned, it is no longer necessary to remember the source. In fact, it would be inefficient and, in some cases, confusing to continue to associate certain behavior, such as a social smile or raising an eyebrow to suggest skepticism, with the person we learned it from—so our minds delete or bury that information. We feel as though the behavior springs naturally from our own psyche and judgment.
Cryptomnesia may also have been useful to storytellers in the oral tradition. Before attribution became a contentious issue, the ability to ingest lengthy passages and reproduce them as if they were personal reminiscences would probably have been considered an asset. Success in many other fields, from baseball to jazz, is enhanced by the ability to absorb and appropriate others’ innovations.
So, unintentional copying of others’ material is natural and even healthy, and puts you in excellent company—but you can get sued for it. Where is the reassurance in that?
Most likely, your fears are unfounded. You probably aren’t accidentally stealing others’ work. If you have unconsciously appropriated a phrase or two, this is unlikely to cause serious offense. And even if it turns out one day that you have reproduced huge chunks of someone else’s material, remember that Keller, Twain, and Harrison all recovered from these unhappy episodes and resumed their careers. Being labeled a plagiarist isn’t anything a sane writer would risk purposely, but it is not a death sentence, either.
Try to take heart from Mark Twain’s explanation of the difference between purposeful and accidental plagiarism: “Nothing is ours but our language, our phrasing. If a man takes that from me (knowingly, purposely) he is a thief. If he takes it unconsciously—snaking it out of some old secluded corner of his memory, and mistaking it for a new birth instead of a mummy—he is no thief, and no man has a case against him.”
As always, if anyone is interested in citations or a more in-depth discussion, please email me privately or mention it in the comments section.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.