Monday, January 27, 2014

The Thing about Plagiarism

Recently, the actor Shia LaBeouf got into trouble over allegations of plagiarism. Apparently, he made a short film that was too similar (too similar, that is, to be coincidental) to one of Daniel Clowes' graphic novels, Justin M. Damiano. He then made several public "apologies", including an apology in skywriting that said, "I am sorry Daniel Clowes." He also wrote several Tweets that alternately apologized and defended his actions.

Here are a few examples of how he apologized:

In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation.

Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.

The thing is, that second statement about copying was later alleged to be plagiarized from something that someone named Lili wrote on Yahoo answers. Here's Lili's statement (which I read about on Merely copying isn’t particularly creative work, though it’s useful as training and practice. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work, and it may even revolutionalize [sic] the ‘stolen’ concept.

So basically, after plagiarizing Daniel Clowes' work for his film, he plagiarized someone else for his apology!

(Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall.)

Daniel Clowes expressed shock over what happened, and I'm not sure if he's going to sue LaBeouf or not. I'm a little familiar with Clowes' work; I read his graphic novel Ghost World, which I really liked and thought was very well-written. If I was him, I'd be enraged that someone stole my work and then didn't really apologize for it. I think one reason that actor is in so much trouble right now isn't just because he plagiarized; it's because he's trying to rationalize his actions.

I teach writing, so I know that sometimes people forget to credit their sources. But if they lift entire passages or even brief excerpts from other people's work and claim it as their own, that's still plagiarism. And I think that LaBeouf's claim that he was "inspired by someone else's idea to produce something new and different" doesn't really apply to his film.

Clueless is a 90s teen movie version of Jane Austen's Emma. The movie 10 Things I Hate about You is a 90s teen movie version of The Taming of the Shrew. Why didn't those filmmakers get in trouble? Because for one thing, they took the premise from those stories and really did create something new, so that the filmmakers' story, though based on those earlier works, really did become the filmmakers' own stories.

A lot of people do that. I mean, consider how often the Cinderella story has been retold and revised. The same thing goes for books like Jane Eyre and plays like Romeo and Juliet. On the other hand, I've read books that took actual characters from previously published stories by other authors and "gave them a different spin" or interpretation, which would be good if it wasn't for the fact that some (though not all) of those authors try too hard to sound exactly like the authors of those previously published stories. (One notable exception would be Jean Rhys, who "wrote a life" for the mad wife locked up in the attic in Jane Eyre; that book was excellent and Rhys didn't try to sound like Charlotte Bronte at all.)

I've never been published. But that doesn't mean I've never been plagiarized. A few times, I've seen lines that I wrote for this blog and my Twitter page show up in other people's blogs and Twitter pages (side note: I'm not talking about retweets, since at least with those they give me credit for the Tweets I wrote. And I LOVE retweets, and I often return the favor.). To say that I was angry would be an understatement. I considered confronting them and demanding that they either take down the posts where they stole my lines or give me credit. I also considered finding out where they lived and egging their cars or spray-painting the word THIEF on their houses, or perhaps finding a way to force them to watch marathons of Dance Moms AND Here Comes Honey Boo Boo! But what I really did was nothing. What could I do, when it was only a line here or there? But if someone plagiarizes me to the extent that LaBeouf plagiarized Clowes (though I must admit I haven't seen LaBeouf's film, partly because I think he took it down after the allegations surfaced), I'd fight back like one of the Dance Moms does when one of their daughters gets passed over for a solo. My writing, while far from perfect, is nevertheless something that's MINE, and I think that any writer would be upset to know that someone stole the words right out of their work.

What do you think? Have you ever been plagiarized? Even if you haven't, what would you do if someone plagiarized you?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Writing My Way out of Here

I read a book called Letters to a Fiction Writer, which is a collection of letters and essays on writing by various authors. One of the authors, Ann Beattie, described living in a small town in Connecticut. She described what went through her head as she wrote in that small town: "I am going to write my way out of here."

That line resonates with me as I work on my dissertation. When I was an undergrad and when I was studying for my master's degree, I did well as a young scholar. But when I was in the PhD program, I started struggling just to keep up with the other grad students. It didn't help that unlike them, I didn't have a family member or student loans to support me financially; I worked two or three jobs instead. But the problem was that it left me with little time to study, and I ended up disappointing my professors and myself on more than one occasion.

It wasn't just because of my extra jobs that I struggled to do well in school. It was also because of the fact that I never really fit in with the other academics. I became an English major because I loved literature and poetry. I wanted to become a professor so that I could inspire other students to love literature and poetry as much as I did. But the problem with academia is that we often spend hours talking about everything BUT literature and poetry; the focus is typically on critical theory instead.

I'd sit there during lectures and conferences and put on my "I totally understand what you're saying" face, though most of the time I didn't understand. And I felt like an idiot compared to most of the other grad students, who did understand. They went on to publish articles, present their work at conferences, and win fellowships. I just struggled to keep up. I worked hard; I tried again and again to measure up to my professors' expectations, but I usually fell short. And the fact that my work wasn't good enough made me feel like I wasn't good enough. When you're a workaholic, you define yourself by your work; it's hard to think positively about yourself when your work isn't going well.

Maybe I should have dropped out of graduate school years ago. But I stayed because I loved teaching. Even though I didn't become a good scholar, I became a good teacher, and I have hundreds of positive evaluations from students to prove it. Many of my students signed up for more than one class with me, which always made me feel good. Several of them would come up to me at the end of each term and tell me how much they enjoyed my class or how I was their favorite teacher.

I did encounter many "difficult" students (which is an understatement), as every teacher does. But even those experiences made me stronger, because they taught me to assert myself and not back down.

I still feel a rush of excitement and happiness every time I'm in a classroom, sharing what I know with my students. I think that the classroom is one of the places where I am happiest, aside from bookstores, libraries, and Starbucks (I tried to live without coffee for a week, but I was practically climbing the walls by the end so I had to go back to my caffeinated life.). I love when students have that "aha" moment when they finally understand what I've been telling them. I love when some of them tell me that they enjoyed a particular author that we studied so much that they went out to read more books by that person. I love when they get excited over what they're learning.

But unfortunately, the search committees for many colleges are going to care a lot more about my work as a scholar than my work as a teacher. And I have a sinking feeling that I'm never going to become a tenured professor at a university. I'll be lucky if I get a job as a full-time lecturer at a small college or a community college, and the thing about lectureships is that they usually only last for a few years at a time. 

Maybe I should have become a high school teacher instead of a college teacher, because at least then I could have focused more on being a teacher instead of a scholar. But I don't like how high school teachers are treated in this country. They're underpaid, overworked, and typically blamed for all of the schools and students' problems. They're often forced to spend more time teaching students how to take tests than how to understand subjects that matter more. I've taught high school, and even though I enjoyed working with the students, it was a very different dynamic from working on a college campus.

Often I sit down to work on my dissertation and I feel so paralyzed that I don't know what to write. I feel so overwhelmed by how much work there is still left to do, and I'm afraid that my work will never be good enough to satisfy my professors (and myself).

What I've finally realized is that I need to stop focusing so much on what other people think and just get my dissertation done. Like Ann Beattie, I am going to write my way out of here. And by "here" I mean grad school, my sense of inadequacy, my fears about the future, and all the other things that have dragged me down all these years.

I just want to finish my dissertation and finally move on to the next stage in my life. I'll probably never be a tenured professor. I'm still going to try and find a good teaching job somewhere. As long as I get to teach at a good school, write, and earn enough money to satisfy my caffeine cravings, I'll be happy. I still feel scared about what's going to happen in the future, but I'm also determined to write my way towards the future that I want.

What about you? Do you ever feel anxious about the future? How do you deal with it?

Monday, January 6, 2014

I (Do Not) Resolve

I resolve to write fiction and creative nonfiction more regularly.

I do not resolve to write fiction and creative nonfiction every day, because I have to work on my other book (my dissertation), which may as well be titled The Book with One Million Footnotes or The Book That No One (Including Me) Will Want to Read.

I resolve to use my envy of other people's success to motivate myself to achieve my own goals.

I do not resolve to never be envious again, especially since I wish I had other women's hair at least 537 times a week and I can literally feel my eyes turning green whenever the other grad students go on and on about their academic accomplishments. I think that jealousy is part of human nature, and it's impossible to say that I'll never envy anyone again. I think the important thing is to learn to deal with it in a more productive way, rather than in a "I'm going to kick you if you make me feel bad about my lack of academic accomplishments ONE more time" way.

I resolve to send my work out to more literary magazines and writing competitions. I'm still working on two novels, but a lot of writers have advised fiction writers like me to send short stories out to literary magazines first. They say you don't need an agent for those, and this way I can assemble a portfolio to show potential agents when the time comes. For a long time I kept my writing hidden away in my notebooks and on my computer. But this past year, when I sent a story to a literary magazine, I received an encouraging rejection letter. The editors said that they were impressed with my writing and that even though that particular story wasn't right for them, they encouraged me to send them another one. And THAT made me feel good. Even though I got rejected, it made me feel like a writer.

I do not resolve to tell certain people about my dream of becoming a writer, especially because I prefer to keep my writing life a secret (outside of the blogosphere, that is). I tried to tell a few people before, but they either ridiculed my goal or made me feel like my writing would never be good enough. Obviously, I told the wrong people.

I like making resolutions every year, because it makes me feel like the new year is full of promise; in a way, it gives us a chance to make a fresh start. But I also think it's important to be realistic about the kinds of resolutions you make, which is why I would never resolve to win American Idol (especially because my voice makes people cover their ears and run away) or to win the heart of the new Bachelor (especially because I really DON'T want someone who murmurs sweet nothings in the ears of two dozen other women at the same time that he's "dating" me).

What about you? Did you make any resolutions this year?