You can bet I have been called out on my plagiarism, not once but many, many times. But I have prospered nonetheless and never considered giving it up. I’ll tell you why.
As early as elementary school I freely appropriated the words of others to bolster my insipid attempts at original essays and theme papers. In the fifth grade, penning a report on my favorite book at the time, Winnie the Pooh, I lifted lines from Jacqueline Susann, whose novel Valley of the Dolls I found on my mother’s bedside stand, and from Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita I found on my father’s. My teacher was stunned and thought I had misunderstood the Milne classic. Still I passed, and a light went on in my head.
In grade six, in a theme describing my activities over the summer, this time for a different teacher, I quoted liberally and without attribution Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, and Caitlyn Jenner. My teacher, old Mrs. Slayheath, may have suspected some exaggeration and even fabrication on my part, but she was far too old to penalize me. She merely reminded me, in red pencil, to credit my sources in future. I did not.
In junior high my thievery ran rampant. By that point I was convinced, and I think rightly so, that my plagiarism offered new insights into the real authors’ words and ideas. My pilfered words were actually an improvement on the originals! It was all due to place and timing. In a clever story by author Jorge Luis Borges, a modern writer replicates, through his own inspiration, the exact book Don Quixote. But because he lives in a different place and writes in a different era than Cervantes, it is a completely original work! So this isn’t as stupid as it sounds.
I won’t go so far as to say that my stolen words are pithier or more coherent than the exactly identical originals. After all, they differ from these by not so much as a comma. But in their new place within the dull word salad produced by the floundering and harebrained essayist that is yours truly, these appropriated gems gleam with a fiercer light than perhaps they ever shed before. So how can this still be plagiarism?
Tell me that. Tell Borges that.
Okay, it’s still plagiarism. But plagiarism never sounded so good.
I really came into my own as a word thief in high school. In an essay for American History class, I took a deep breath and passed off as my own a passage beginning “I hold these truths to be self-evident…” Of course I didn’t get away with it, not at first. But before my obviously bogus work dragged my final grade down to a humiliating C, that teacher died. Let me say at once that I had nothing to do with her demise, though I can’t say I grieved much.
For the substitute teacher who took her place, I wrote a putative biographical paper on the young Abe Lincoln, drawing equally from the Bible’s Book of Jonah, Jack London’s Yukon story White Fang, and a speech of Mussolini’s. She recognized the biblical part! The old lady wasn’t as dumb as I thought. But all she did was write a note on my paper that I must acknowlege any quotations. And I got a B+!
On to college, where I determined that the secret to not getting caught was to plunder works far afield from the subject I was writing about. Thus in psych class, my so-called original papers didn’t crib from famous experts like Freud or Jung, but instead I inserted whole paragraphs of Ann Landers, J. Edgar Hoover, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. For my philosophy essay, I avoided Nietzsche and Marx and inserted a disguised essay by Woody Allen, and once, in a paper called “The Humorous Side of Solipsism,” an entire routine of Rodney Dangerfield’s. For my journalism class, I had the inspired notion of submitting an already plagiarized piece by the recognized plagiarist Jayson Blair. I was really proud of that one. I had other tricks as well. For my creative writing course, I handed in Gogol’s “The Nose”, with this subtle difference: wherever Gogol used the word “nose,” I substituted “elbow.” Consequently my story was called “The Elbow,” but was otherwise the same as his, practically speaking. I also submitted Kafka’s Metamorphosis with Gregor Samsa turning into a deer.
Some of my instructors had their suspicions, of course, but hardly any called me out. Probably they assumed that, like everybody else, I bought my papers for $50 from an essay mill. And why interfere with tradition? Those that did question my authenticity only received another plagiarized effort in exchange for the first, and in the end I always got by, sometimes with praise.
In my current occupation as speechwriter for the mayor of a small Midwestern city, I continue to plagiarize with both hands in the cookie jar. No one cares what a small-town mayor says, not enough to reconstruct its provenance anyway, and so my sticky fingers sift freely. It’s a fun job. Only last week, while the mayor spoke before TV cameras on the need for more diversity at city hall, he had no idea he was quoting Jefferson Davis, Muammar Gaddafi, and the Unabomber. I agree with the positions of none of those folks, let me add, but remember: it’s all about time and place. My time and place.