I mean ... Who will remember that Harper Lee published the book in 1960?
It's a terrific story, probably one of the greatest works of American Literature, and well worth re-telling. Though I have to say that I hate what she did to my main characters, Abbacus and Sprout!
I was made painfully aware that the subject of plagiarism is not always taken seriously, as I read through comments in other parts of this place, yet it is serious and those who are not aware of this, need to be.
Folk lose college places, can be refused High School graduation, or lose their jobs over what amounts to theft, whatever the motivation.
I genuinely believe that most writers would rather you stole their money, than their words. Words come from within. They are a personal, and personally felt expression of ideas notwithstanding any monetary value they may have. When I share my words with readers, I do it freely and openly with the sole expectation that those thoughts are identified as mine. Yes, even the ill-informed, poorly worded or simply incorrect statements. They are mine, I own them and I take responsibility for them. I feel confident that I share that with every other writer who puts fingers to keyboard.
The readers hold those words in trust, any breach of which is felt as keenly as one might feel any other invasion of personal space. What it says about the perpetrator is not something I would wish to dwell on. Much in the way that one would know little of the personal circumstances of any other transgressor, neither can we form much of a view of the plagiarist, and we really shouldn't be going there.
All a writer can do is explain how it feels to them.
With that in mind it occurred to me that we might benefit from an exploration of the boundaries between the incorporating, and interpreting of ideas, and the difference between that and copying.
Writing is difficult, and good writing, powerful writing, writing that moves emotions and touches the soul is damned near impossible. Poets do not regularly sit in fields full of daffodils while their minds "wander lonely as a cloud". They work at it. They craft their thoughts. They scribble, revise, re-write and bring a professional work ethic to their art; they give of themselves that the reader might share the authority and power of the idea.
While it is painfully obvious that I have neither the experience nor the talent to really have written "To Kill A Mockingbird", the line between what is acceptable, and what is plagiarism can become fuzzy, indistinct when one is considering not the copying of text, but the incorporation of ideas.
How many of us truly have unique thoughts? To channel another famous, long dead and quite unable to sue author, no man is an island, entire of himself. Each man is a part of the main ... and each man is a sum of the ideas and influences of others, modeled only by his or her own thoughts and experiences.
To demonstrate just how difficult this can become, I want to share something from my own writing that caused me much heartache and internal debate before I finally gave in, and decided that the phrase was just too good to ignore. I asked myself at the time whether I "copied" the phrase, or whether it simply inspired me to say exactly what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it. In the end, you can decide. I offer this example up for judgement, but before you rush towards me as a unified condemnatory horde, try to put yourself where I was. What would you have done? It isn't easy.
In the summer of 1998 my thirty four year old brother died. I was in prison at the time and I have written about this before. Not something I am inordinately proud of, nor have I ever tried to hide or diminish it.
When you find yourself in such an extreme situation, your one hope is that you will get to the other side of that experience with no tragedies along the way. A death in the family is one of a prisoner's worst nightmares and I had not one, but two.
When Karl died I felt the need to reach out to my Mum. It was a primitive feeling, not something that could be taken care of with a phone-call or visit; so I did what I do, and sat down to write:
He saw the fields of young wheat,
But never ate the bread,
He saw the Sun rise in the Spring,
By Autumn he was dead.
The aging light was not to be,
Not for him the twilight years,
Winter will be ours alone,
To remember, and conquer our fears.
Some measure a man by his learning,
By letters, diplomas, awards,
Such men may be great, or destructive,
My brother made ploughshares from swords.
His friends performed the Haka,
An honour they said was his right,
A Chief amongst men of all nations,
A blazing flash of light.
You lit the match,
That started the flame,
Extinguished too soon,
But the warmth will remain.
Jaza will see the wheat ripen,
Cortez will taste the fresh bread,
The rafters will ring with their laughter,
And Karl will rest well in his bed.
Whether or not that poem is any good is not relevant here. I do know that many years later my Mum still had it stuck on the fridge. On the other hand, fridge magnets from window salesmen that had visited years before were still there too. What is relevant is that those few words were extremely difficult to write.
That is unusual for me. I tend to write in a stream of consciousness manner. It flows out in chunks and usually comes together quickly. Not so this time. On this occasion it reminded me of essay writing at school, but with tears.
Sitting in a cell with a blank page, a dead brother and a grieving Mum had stemmed the flow of the words I hoped would bring some comfort. I managed the first verse, but was stuck fast in the word desert that makes death valley seem like a cool oasis. Now what? I felt the edge of my talent rapidly approach, then fell over it.
Then, from a completely unexpected direction, I had some help. I had bunged on a CD to listen to music that matched my mood. A Scottish band called Runrig was playing in the background. As the power and majesty that is The Mighty Atlantic gave way to the plaintive lilt of Flower Of The West, so did providence arrive much in the way that the sighting of an albatross was a portent of good fortune to the sailors of yore:
The colour frontier
The aging light
The sight that knows no fear
Tha aging light ... aging light ... The aging light was not to be ... bing-freaking-go!
I felt crushed. It was perfect, and it wasn't mine. I sat there for an hour. I wrote it up, down and sideways and it still felt like it belonged to someone else. It STILL feels like it belongs to someone else these fifteen years later.
But my Mum was crying, and it was perfect. It went in and I told myself that Runrig simply inspired me. They have no idea just how grateful I am to this day.
There really is no way that this example is comparable to the occasional egregious cases of plagiarism that we encounter from time to time. I can tell you that the most recent case is certainly not the only one, however widely it is now known. Yet when we consider this matter, there are some shades of grey. Not every case will be a simple cutting and pasting of text. I hope that every Diarist makes a valiant attempt to disclose and attribute source material. Clearly this should always happen when passages are quoted directly, but plagiarism is not restricted to the transcribing of text. Intellectual property is a wider subject. Ideas, thoughts, methods of expression and yes, even a perfect phrase can have us wondering and worrying about our own intellectual honesty.
Whatever my personal view of the use of two words that inspired me happen to be, I am aware that the chances of anyone ever actually drawing it to my attention were zero. That isn't the point either, because I know!
Some will think I am being way too harsh, that using a couple of words that fell providently into my lap just when I needed them is perfectly fine. After all, I did have to hear them, understand the meaning and transpose that to the piece I was writing, a much different work to the song that inspired it.
Again, that goes to the point. The shades of grey that we occasionally inhabit. That world where my boundary may be relatively clear, but yours might not.
I hope this Diary is not seen as anything other than an attempt to help people understand that we need to be vigilant about our writing. That I hold no animus or ill-will to anyone here other than Harper Lee, maybe ... Pffft!
I'll leave you with a tribute to my inspiration, when I needed inspiration very badly indeed: