Coming clean: notes on becoming an honest writer
I’ve written four books since 2006, and I’m at work on another. But for every book that reaches publication, I have at least one (sometimes two or three) proposals rejected.
One of them was to be called “The Honest Writer: A Guide to Originality.” I stumbled upon my proposal last week and delivered part of it to a group of college teachers gathered for a conference on academic integrity. Having dusted it off for them, I thought I’d show it to you. It includes, you should know at the start, a list of some of my literary sins over the years. The purpose of such a list is not to insist that everyone cheats, or, as they say in the sports world: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I write more in the spirit of “The Confessions” of St. Augustine. I’m not trying to impose on any writer challenges I haven’t experienced myself. In that spirit, here’s my take.
* * *
Not long ago, I was editing a book manuscript when I came upon the phrase “fierce discipline,” which I had used to describe the capacity a writer needs to cut words, phrases, whole sections from drafts of his or her story. The phrase stopped me cold. Was it original to me, or had I encountered it in another essay or work of literature, a poem perhaps? If the phrase was not fully mine, should I attribute it (if I could find a source), or should I choose a different phrase, “exacting standards,” perhaps? I found myself disabled by what Harold Bloom described as “the anxiety of influence.”
But why? It was as simple and neurotic as this: I am considered an expert on writing and questions of plagiarism and did not want to be blown up by my own improvised exploding device. I could read the tabloid headlines in my nightmares: Ethicist Turns Plagiarist. And then, for the first time, I enlisted the tools of technology to protect me. I Googled the phrase.
I found 662 links to “fierce discipline,” none of which I recognized. Here is a sample:
--“She exercised a fierce discipline, worked hard and excelled in her studies.”
--“Are you willing to summon fierce discipline and crafty willpower not only to pump up your career ambitions but also to refine your approach to intimacy?”
--“On the contrary, putting the customer first is a fierce discipline that the market imposes on producers.”
--“Finally, ‘The Incident in the Cellar’ brings a wayward young wife home to face the fierce discipline she's put off far too long.” (This turned out to be a kinky story about spanking!)
My search led me to two useful conclusions: 1) that this phrase “fierce discipline” was not (or at least not yet) a cliché. Remember, Google found only 662 matches, as opposed to 116,000 for “called on the carpet,” and almost two million for “face the music.” And 2) “fierce discipline” was used frequently enough so that no one writer could claim ownership. The phrase, though not original, was not common either, so I preserved it in my essay.
As I sat back and contemplated the significance of this process, I realized that I had stumbled upon the use of a search engine to test the reliability of my language. Or, to put it another way, I had discovered a tool of originality. We need more of them.
* * *
The best thing you can say about my writing is that it’s honest. I’ll take creative, powerful, illuminating, moving, or sexy. Give me original, thought-provoking, poignant, edgy, or courageous. Tell the world, O Critic, that my prose makes "Crime and Punishment" read like Dick and Jane. If none of these apply, I’ll settle for honest.
For the writer, in school or on the job, honesty is not just the best policy; it’s also the best insurance policy, protecting you and your reader from every form of literary malpractice. Honesty will keep you out of trouble.
Let’s imagine, for example, that you are tempted to steal the work of another writer, an act that we can trace to the earliest expression of poetry and prose, an act committed by some of our most famous authors and public figures. Tempted to commit what I once called “the unoriginal sin,” you wonder if you can get away with it. What are my chances of getting caught? In our time, literary piracy is not only easier to commit, via the Internet, but also easier to detect. Believe me: You may attend a tiny college in a small town surrounded by desert, but if you rip off part of a Maureen Dowd column for your school newspaper I guarantee that some scrofulous blogger living with his mommy half a continent away will detect it, and news of your transgression will travel round the world with the speed of light. And your life will have been changed forever.
* * *
If I were to write a book called the "The Honest Writer," it would describe five primary forms of writerly dishonesty, all of which can get you into hot water, some cauldrons being hotter than others. The House of Dishonest Writing, which sends up its chimney the Stench of Scandal, can be entered through these passageways:
• Plagiarism: the intentional, fraudulent use of another person’s language or ideas without giving proper credit.
• Fabrication: Using significant fictional elements in a work that purports to be non-fiction.
• Deception of the Reader: Breaking the implied contract with readers about the nature of the work, its contents and its methods.
• Lack of Transparency: Using controversial or experimental methods without appropriate and responsible signals to the reader.
• Lazy Inattention to Craft: “I didn’t mean to plagiarize. I just kept sloppy notes and thought that paragraph was mine.”
* * *
Writing can be hard work, so it’s easy to see why inexperienced writers of every age might be oblivious to the standards and methods of the honest writer. I know this from my own experience. If I’m going to write a book called "The Honest Writer," then I’m the writer in the world most obliged to be, well, honest. So I tell you, in all honesty, and with some feelings of vulnerability, that I have committed a number of the acts I’m going to ask you to avoid. Most of these false steps were taken when I was young, untutored, and unaware of academic or professional standards; but some came later, when I should have known better. If Oprah Winfrey grilled me on national television, I’d have to confess to these missteps:
--In high school, I would, on occasion, fabricate the quotations and footnotes for a term paper: “‘The ranks of the Roman army were made up of rogues, scoundrels and thieves, the dregs of Roman society,’ wrote Victor L. Duncan in his book March across Civilization (New York: Dunbar Press, 1937), p. 256.” Everything in this kind of citation was bogus, and I could count on a busy teacher – long before the Internet -- not being able to track down all my references.
--In college, I lent a friend a term paper I had written a year earlier. He said he just wanted to use it for research, but I knew he would copy it word for word, which he did. If you were smart like me, the way to avoid being pegged as a nerd was to help the brain-impaired cheat on papers and examinations. My great teacher, Rene Fortin, gave me an A+, but the same paper only earned Cheater Boy something like a C-.
--A friend of a friend got in some academic trouble and needed a good grade on a paper to pass the course. My friend recounted his friend’s plight and, before I knew it, I was taking $50 to write his work for him. This is the first time I can remember dumbing down my work so his teacher would not be too suspicious. This required some awkward phrasing and the occasional comma splice or run-on sentence.
--Although I would one day become a journalist and journalism teacher, I was trained in English literature, so I was comfortable with the idea of a “higher truth.” Truth – with a capital T – was more important than literal, verifiable reality, so I took a couple of shortcuts in some of my earliest freelance writing. In a column on ideological disagreement in the Catholic Church, I made up the story of two parishioners who listened to the same sermon but arrived at radically different conclusions about its meaning. Such divergence of opinion was common in my experience as a Catholic, but I came to realize that my “composite character” was taboo in traditional nonfiction.
--As a young assistant professor, I was asked to introduce U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of Watergate fame to a college audience. In my introduction, I borrowed a long passage, unattributed, from a nifty introduction to a book about the senator. I received great praise later for the spirit and humor of my words, and came to feel guilty that I had used another’s creativity without giving due credit. It may not have even occurred to me that I should attribute words I was borrowing for a short, public, but unpublished address.
--I’ve written and published personal essays that I now realize were way too casual in their methods. I usually settled for the most entertaining version my memory could conjure, rather than one that had been or could be verified. In the same sense, I have written narratives that, though original and truthful, were not as transparent as they should have been. My techniques were experimental enough that the reader deserved to know not only what I knew, but how I knew it.
I will not be the first author to declare he needed to make a journey from potential wordsnitch to wordsmith. In fact, some other much-more-famous writers make me feel like an archangel of honesty and originality. In his book "Stolen Words," Thomas Mallon describes transgressions by the likes of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The great New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, would reveal in a 1992 anthology of his stories that 10 of 36 stories – all assumed to be factual – were, in Mitchell’s words, “fictional.”
A more impressive malefactor appears to be John Hersey, whose book "Hiroshima" is considered to be among the great works of nonfiction in the 20th century, and whose essay, “The Legend on the License,” is held up, including by me, as a powerful manifesto on the need for honesty and straightforwardness in nonfiction. Yet, according to Ben Yagoda and Kevin Kerrane, a story that Hersey wrote in 1944 depended upon a composite character to describe the experience of a soldier returning home from the war. And, more damning, Anne Fadiman has argued that one of Hersey’s most famous books, "Men on Bataan," was plagiarized from her mother, a correspondent for Time magazine. She concludes, from other evidence, that Hersey “turned out to have all the marks of the compulsive plagiarist: he borrowed repeatedly, he left extravagantly obvious clues, and – what a gifted writer he was! – he didn’t need to.” (Ex Libris, p. 111) [Author’s note: This is a real source. I didn’t make it up.]
* * *
I reveal my faults, and those of others, not to prove the redemptive value of confession, but to let you know that all writers, on occasion, fudge it. Those who say they never have are either a) saints, b) delusional, or c) dismissive of writing standards. I also detest the scrupulous conscience. I don’t want you to turn from the ideas in "The Honest Writer" because you fear they come from a Puritan holding a torch and looking to burn a witch. I am the witch. Ouch! That’s hot!
I failed my first driving test by driving too slowly. The inspector wanted me to get up to the speed limit, but I was unable to do so, petrified that I would exceed it and fail the test. So concerned was I about my speed, that I even drove through a red light. As a writer, you may be so concerned about exceeding the borrowing limit that your writing engine will grind to a halt.
I don’t want you, or any writer, to be paralyzed by virtue.
The other moral to my story is that I’ve had to learn my way toward honesty. It did not come naturally. That’s why this book will take a green light approach, pointing you to the habits of virtue more than the seductions of writing vice. The honest writer, it turns out, needs not only an inclination to do the right thing, but also the tools of originality.
I remember a research study commissioned by Reader’s Digest on the honesty of auto mechanics, who are often thought of as generically corrupt. The researchers drove a slightly defective car around the country and stopped at auto shops to get it fixed. It turned out that very few shops tried to rip off the driver, charging for unneeded repairs. Much more often the mechanics could simply not identify the problem. So this is true in automotive engineering, in politics, and in writing: In the absence of demonstrated competence, the consumer will assume negligence.
Just as the young mechanic must learn the tools of the trade, so must the inexperienced writer learn the tools of originality. The writer will be more able to resist the temptation to plagiarize or fabricate if the writer keeps an honest toolbox nearby: responsible research and note-taking methods; an understanding of the creative process; protocols of attribution; several methods of drafting, paraphrase, and revision.
Not long ago, I conducted a workshop for a group of middle and high school writers who had earned the opportunity to write on occasion for a professional newspaper, then called the St. Petersburg Times. We practiced various aspects of the craft, from note-taking to lead writing, but near the end I gave them a brief sermon on the dangers of the two-headed monster: Plagiarism and Fabrication. Then, on a whim, I made them stand up, raise their right hands and make a pledge. The words of the pledge were humorous and improvised, but the idea behind it was rock solid: They owed me their honesty and their best effort. I, in return, would show them how to avoid trouble by sharing the tools of originality.
Correction: Sen. Sam Ervin's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.