In Our Writing We Trust

This new essay was just published in the literary journal The Tishman Review. Read here or visit

Whenever I teach a class about writing and publishing, there is always a student who asks, “Aren’t you worried your ideas will be stolen?”  This is probably because of my teaching philosophy, which is to share everything in the world I know that might help them.

I always answer, “No.  I’m not afraid my ideas will be stolen.”  In the first place, the very essence of an idea is that it can’t be stolen.  An idea is an intangible thing.  Add to it the writer’s voice; toss in her version of plot, character, and setting; and you’ve got something that can’t be exactly duplicated.

Maybe there are only two or three or twelve basic plots, as some writing teachers like to point out.  And maybe if that monkey sits at the computer long enough it will eventually type out Romeo and Juliet.  I tell my own students that most good stories are basically about three things: love, loss, or longing (or any two or all of these in combination).  On the surface that might not seem to allow for much creativity, but the beauty of it is that there are as many stories about love, loss, and longing as there are human beings.

Should no other writer have written a story about doomed lovers after Romeo and Juliet?  Of course not.  The library shelves are filled with stories about doomed love affairs.  Romeo and Juliet has itself been reworked in thousands of incarnations.

In fact, a time-honored exercise in writing classes is to have students read and “imitate” passages by favorite authors, by writing actual prose that copies as closely as possible that author’s style, tone, and voice.  Try it sometime.  So far I haven’t seen any students “turn into” the next Stephen King or Alice Munro.

Of course, there must be legal protection of our creative work, and I don’t mean to minimize copyrighting one’s work.  Copyright law so far has applied more to tangible forms such as actual written words, and not the more intangible form of creative work called an “idea.”  This recognizes that I couldn’t successfully sue James Cameron because I too was writing a drama about the Titanic. If I wrote a book, Everything You Wanted to Know  About Cicadas, and you wanted to write a book with the same title, you could.  As long as the text of the book was different, the same idea, and even the same title could be used.

I have given some thought to this issue because something once happened to me as a writer that, at the time, shook me to my very core.  I was accused by another writer in my writer’s group of stealing an idea from a short story of hers, and re-working it as my own.  I won a fiction prize for the story – a story which had elements she said I had plagiarized.

Of course I did not plagiarize her story, or any story.  But when you are accused, how do you defend yourself?  Do you get mad, or are you taking the chance that you “doth protest too much…”

To my utter gratitude, the other writers in our up-until-then very intimate writing group were as dumbfounded as I was.  And without any hesitation they dismissed the charges as being a personal mental health issue of this person.  My accuser had claimed that I had betrayed her trust, when in fact, by her unwarranted and unsubstantiated attack, she had betrayed the very trust our group depended upon.

By its very nature a writing group operates on a basis of trust.  This is where you go with your rawest material.  As a matter of fact, this was often used as a disclaimer as we introduced a new piece.  “If this is really awful, it’s only the first draft, and I wrote while I had the flu and the washer was broken.”

In other words, “Don’t be too hard on this fragile and thinly veiled representation of my ego.”

In a good writing group, like the one I belonged to, we never attacked each other’s work.  This was the place we came to feel safe.  We could write a story with an ending that stunk (and we knew it stunk), and we’d get gentle feedback like, “The ending didn’t quite resonate for me.”

We talked a lot of about the issue of trust in the first meeting (minus one) of our group, after “the incident.”  Our group was intimately familiar with both writers and the work being challenged, and they were baffled as to how my story could possibly have been called into question.  You would be hard-pressed to find two writers more different in tone, voice, and style than me and my accuser.

Nevertheless, I sat through that first meeting shell-shocked, and feeling both violated and betrayed.  By accusing me of plagiarism, my accuser had not only attacked my work, but also my very essence, my integrity – the very way I live my life.

Still, years later, thinking about how fiction works, it seems that at least my fiction or essays start with a central image – an idea, if you will.  I let that idea simmer in my brain as I go about life, and jot down notes as they might apply to that image.  The story reveals itself to me bit-by-bit, and although my thoughts are intricately linked to everything I have ever read and seen, and experienced in my life, it is still my story.  No one else can tell it the same way.

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