Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some thoughts on "The Ecstasy of Influence"

When I first stumbled across Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence" in Harper's Magazine a few years ago, it felt like a revelation. Before I read it, I thought I was alone.  After reading Lethem's brilliant "plagiarism," I knew that I was part of a great collection of insatiably curious minds addicted to learning and information and baffled by modern copyright laws and the ways they try to box and contain the human mind and creativity. 

We have read so many books and stories that they influence us in ways we aren't cognizant of.  Instead of being afraid of being called out for lying unintentionally when "quoting" these influences unaware, Lethem advises thinking and talking about plagiarism, influence, and copyright the way it is evolving in our society.  Maybe we're not the ones who need to change, he suggests.  It seems like a stunning collection of original ideas, but it turns out he got these ideas from other people.  (Be sure to check out his end notes.)

Ever since junior high, I have been extremely concerned about plagiarism because it seemed like one of writing's deadly sins.  I was a good girl; I did not want to be a sinner.  In college, I evolved a complex documentation process involving notecards and notes that allowed me to write 10 full academic papers in ten weeks for one class.  I was always a stickler for documentation when writing academic papers.  I had to be.  It knew it would be easy to plagiarize unintentionally, so I was vigilant.

Towards the end of college, I started taking creative nonfiction (CNF) classes (personal essay and the like) and discovered CNF's insidious charms.  (Writing well about what I think about things is legitimate!  I don't have to have sources at all!)   This elation was short-lived because in the course of these classes, I learned that it was easier for me (and somehow more challenging) to relax my Type-A controlling of information and just think on the page.  But I wanted to be a college composition teacher, and I would have to get a research degree to do so.  I resisted the siren song . . .

Then I discovered you can teach with an MFA (a terminal degree that's more about practicing the craft than researching).  A titanic battle erupted.  It would be lovely to be called Dr. X, but what a silly reason to spend more money.  Was I capable of the rigor and organization that it would take to write a dissertation?  Probably, but just thinking of the number of trees I would need to kill for that many notecards was daunting.  And, let's be honest, did I want to squash myself like that now that I'd felt the freedom and relief of creative writing?  Not really.  Not now that I had been seduced . . .  The MFA it was.

Another reason I steered away from academic research writing was because of those scandals about plagiarism when nonfiction writers didn't cite sources correctly.  I felt bad because sometimes it seemed like they didn't do it on purpose, but they were labeled as evil thieves anyway.  I wished the news people would be a little less gleeful about it.  The writers read so many sources to create those academic tomes; how could they possibly keep straight what was original thought?  I sure couldn't, not with what I'd come to know about how my brain works best. 

I'm an omnivorous reader, a generalist and a synthesizer, an unconscious collector of knowledge and phrases, and I'm also a writer.  This is a dangerous combination because  I never know when I will write something I read somewhere 10 years ago without even knowing it. I'd hate to have my integrity called into question just because I haven't been carefully documenting every source I've encountered since I began reading at age 3.

Should I have to?  Do we need to know and acknowledge all our sources when we live in a society of document, idea, and information overflow?  Is it possible to?

Once, on a dare from a high school history teacher, I wrote a term paper made up entirely of quotes (okay, and about 7 sentences of connecting tissue).  Sometimes, I feel like that's what I do when I write an essay, only I don't have the sources and notes available for citation.  Where do our ideas come from?  They must come from somewhere, but that doesn't mean we remember where.  Should we have to?  Is it really dishonest to have a bad memory?  Isn't the idea what matters?  Isn't the discussion what's valuable?  Must we create out of nothing or risk being called immoral?

In graduate school, one of the first things a professor told us is that all writers are thieves and pirates.  If we love to read, we can't help but be so.  Something has to happen to all those bits we learn and love that float around in our brains interacting with each other.

While you may not agree with the conclusions of Lethem's piece, that's not the point.  The point is starting discussions and considering things you haven't thought about before about how our brains work and work best.  It's a bonus that he did so in a rather brilliant and entertaining way.

If you haven't already read the article, please take some time to do so. What do you think?

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