Writing is often confession, and today I feel like disclosing one of my biggest fears: plagiarism. Not the worry that I will be plagiarized, but the panic that I will commit it. Inadvertently. I don’t want someone stealing my stuff, of course. That would suck. But worse, for me is that I would end up snatching someone else’s work.
The root I guess, comes from the fact that I feel people should be honoured for their originality. Growing up, I loathed being copied. I know the old line about it being the sincerest form of flattery and all that jazz, but it truly irked me. I was even averse to compliments sometimes, like “I love that sweater. Where did you get it?” because I worried that meant the flatterer would rush out and buy one too. I should stress that I wasn’t then, and still am not, a trendsetter in anything. But I have always been protective in some ways of my own ideas, thoughts, likes, and dislikes. As I got older, I became much more comfortable with spreading my opinions around (as anyone who knows me will attest, probably with a loud “Uh-huh” and eye roll). I am happy when people share my ideas or thoughts enough that we can find common ground. But there is a difference between having things in common and copying. It’s weak to bite someone’s style. It shows a lack of character. But it can be inspiring when two people have independently come to some conclusion or way of seeing the world, and can relate to one another.
But what about those times when something might seep into your subconscious, and end up oozing back out again, with the attached notion that it originated with you? Some of the best, or most famous, examples of this are in popular music. There was much hubbub last year when Marvin Gaye’s family launched a suit against Robin Thicke for perceived similarities between Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” and Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” And a few years before that Coldplay took flack from Joe Satriani’s crew for the similarities between his “If I Could Fly” and Coldplay’s hit “Viva La Vida.” I recently read that Radiohead actually gave a writing credit to Albert Hammond, due to a legal wrangle about the chord progression in Hammond’s 1972 song “The Air That I Breathe” and Radiohead’s “Creep”. Do I think that some of these songs do sound strikingly similar? Yes indeed. Do I think that any of these artists consciously heard a particular guitar riff, or melody and thought “Woot! This rocks. I’m stealing it”? No. I don’t. And what I’ve always wondered is how did the accusations make people like Chris Martin or Thom Yorke feel? If it were me I would feel like crap. Even if it was purely accidental, and I stood by my own “creation”, there would be the nagging feeling that something you thought you created was really just a copy. Even if Plato’s right, and most things are just a copy of a copy, it’s still harsh when your own art is called out for it.
I think most times the art that we’re drawn to is the art that we wish we could make ourselves. It’s a chicken and egg thing where we are both inspired by people, and tend to do the same, and are drawn to those who are the same as us. Certainly my favourite poets and fiction writers are people who I wish, hope, I can write like — in some very distant year or in some other reality. I respect them for their ideas, images, ability with words. I aspire to be. I probably model the same. But are there times when I actually do the same? When a phrase or image is repeated, almost verbatim, and I don’t even realize? It’s a scary thought for me. Will I have some “A-ha!” moment where I think something really works, precisely because it has worked in someone else’s writing? I hope there is some mechanism in my brain that says “Hey, this is good. But tweak for originality, please.” Or as they say on all the singing reality shows, “Really make it your own.”
Or, do I just accept the wisdom of Plato? Art will always be a mere imitation of the objects and events of ordinary life, effectively a copy of a copy of an ideal form. Maybe I should just try to write my best, try to invent, rather than steal. Get inspired, and try to inspire. But drop the worry and remain cognizant of what’s uttered in the lyrics of one of my favourite Nine Inch Nails songs, “Copy of A”: I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before.