School Author Visit: SRTMS Career Day 2015 on Writing, Islanding, and Social Good

Plagiarism is Purloining. Or is It?

It’s good to have smart people in your corner.  Mentors can help you take your writing far, and I’m quick to lean on people for advice or to get help when I am stuck.  Like most writers, I get fixated on “what” I’m writing so often, I try to remember to consult with people from time-to-time about “how” I’m writing.  I’ve been having some ongoing dialogue with my former high school English and Journalism teacher, Vickie Benner, who read the first three Chapters of my new novel, When it Comes in Threes.  For some time, she and I have been discussing whether or not I should change the voice in my first draft of the book from an adult to a child’s narrative as suggested by someone I highly respect in the literary community.  When I finally decided to give the new voice a whirl, I discovered I was having much more fun writing the piece from a child’s perspective than I ever did before.  Long story short, it’s a full rewrite, but will be better suited for the Young Adult book market for which the piece is intended.

Just this week, I leaned on Vickie again.  She and I had dialog about other books or movies that could compare to what I am working on now.  After a bit of contemplation, I threw out books that resonated with me that could be considered along the same grain as mine.  So I threw out Running with Scissors (due to the highly dysfunctional family depicted in the book) and Bastard Out of Carolina (the conflicted, young protagonist dealing with abuse.)  But, I got stuck on the name of a third book and the subsequent movie that followed.  I said, “Oh Vickie.  What’s the name of that book with the Wal-Mart Baby in it?  You know, named Americus?”  She said, “Oh yes.  With Natalie Portman in it?”  But, neither one of us could remember the name of the movie.  I then told her my book would have someone, maybe a couple or three people, come into my main character’s life and make a difference in it, like the “Welcome Wagon” lady did in Natalie Portman’s character’s life, and more great dialogue ensued. Vickie and I chatted a bit more and we hung up.

The next day, during lunch, I switched on the TV.  I never switch on the TV at lunchtime, and guess what was on? Where the Heart Is.  It was on.  A movie I hadn’t seen in probably five years.  So, I watched it, and right where I picked up in the movie Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd) was asking why Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) named her baby Americus.

And, then–there it was.

I swallowed hard and tried to will it not be so.  Lexie tells Novalee that she named her kids after snack food.  Brownie, Praline, Cherry and Baby Ruth.  Kids named after food!  Oh.  My.  God.  Enter Chapter 1, Paragraph Six of my new novel:  “Nine months after Mama said I do, she gave birth to Bartlett, named after the pear fruit, ‘cause Mama was green with the flu when she went into labor and threw up all over her doctor, just two years and a month before I was born. Mama always did have a penchant for food, and so she named me Barley, like the waves of golden grain that rolled through the John Deere combines from the dry fields of Oklahoma. Seven years later, my baby brother, Graham, like the cracker, came. Mama didn’t have no real good explanation for his name, except that she liked to crush up graham crackers in milk in the mornings and eat ‘em like that for breakfast.  Us three, Bartlett and Graham and me, we never knew what hit us being born a Sullivan.  One of my elementary school teachers, Miss Espich, once told me that never knowing what hits you is an idiom relating to very bad consequences in which the people involved were totally unsuspecting. That’s us, the Sullivan Three, totally unsuspecting people named after food.”  I thought I was being ingenious and novel when I wrote that paragraph.  I “thought” I owned the inventive concept of people naming people after food!

Wikipedia defines plagiarism as the “wrongful appropriation” and “purloining and publication” of another author‘s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work. The idea remains problematic with unclear definitions and unclear rules.The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement. Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like expulsion

So, for all you readers and writers out there, I have two questions and then will follow up with a thought:

1.  I already admitted to watching the movie over five years ago and, Where the Heart is clearly still resonates with me. I’ve carried the book and those characters along with me these past five years. That said, does Billy Letts, the bestselling author, own the concept of naming people after food merely because she published it first?
In the book, The Outsiders, a main character’s name is Soda Pop.
I wonder, based upon the definition of plagiarism, if one author could be accused of stealing the mere concept of naming character’s after food?

2.  Have I plagiarized already by merely expressing an idea, which I thought I owned, by publishing Chapter 1 of my book on my blog?

In December of 2011, I published an article entitled “Finding the Value in Creativity” on  I later re-blogged the same article here on my site.  In it, I write, “The Free Dictionary Online indicates that according to the philosophy of Plato, the definition of an idea “is an archetype of which a corresponding being in phenomenal reality is an imperfect replica.” The web source goes on to say that according to the philosophy of Kant, “an idea is a concept of reason that is transcendent but nonempiral.” But, even Hagel said it differently. He claimed that an idea means “absolute truth; the complete and ultimate product of reason.” In the dictionary, the definition of an idea reads “something, such as a thought or conception that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.”

Transcendent thought, huh? A thought or conception that existed in the mind as a product of mental activity, huh?  If this is true, that would mean at the point I wrote my paragraph, it was my thought, my mental activity, and my idea.  I don’t know.  Maybe I have to change it purely because it’s now unoriginal. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  My mentor, Vickie Benner, gave me hers…

When it Comes in Threes: Chapter 2 “You Ain’t Nothin’ Unless You’re Something”

Chapter 2 “You Ain’t Nothin’ Unless You’re Something”

Mama always said, “You ain’t nothin’ unless you think somethin’ of your own self.” When I was younger, I once asked her how some people got to be rich while others went without. “Well,” Mama said, “A long time ago, well over a hundred years ago or so; a great tornado came to Oklahoma and picked up all them homes spread across our great state and plopped them down haphazardly where God best saw the people in them fitting in. It was sort of like the story of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. All them houses were just plunked down in the middle of nowhere in some cases,” she said. “Some people started out rich and went poor because they was placed near the railroad tracks, or the other way around when a poor man suddenly found hisself living on a giant plot of land out by Lake Murray,” she said. “You don’t get to choose anymore, Barley, where you’s gonna live or how much money you’s gonna have one day. You was born without a pot to piss in because God did all the choosin’ for you by placin’ you here with me, right where ya belong. He did all that long before you was born by picking your parents, and our parents before us, and so on. There ain’t even a God-damned thing anyone can do about it. You just gotta be thankful ya just got a roof over your head and plumbin’ to wash the dirt off your hands when you come in from work, and clothes on your back to protect you from the sun and to ward off the cold. No one needs anything much more than that, Barley,” she said.

“You forgot love,” I whispered under my breath, so low and barely audible that I was certain she couldn’t hear it. But, Mama’s hearing was sharp, just like her tongue. “Love ain’t gonna get you through but one single, solitary winter. Don’t you ever forget that,” she said, casting her eyes away from me and dropping the conversation entirely by dismissing it with a wave of her calloused hands. “But, you love Daddy, right?” I said. Still, Mama would have no more of it and I knew it was best to leave the conversation alone.

I had to hand it to Mama’s imagination about that tornado, and for making excuses for her and Daddy like that about where we lived, in our tiny trailer spread out along with all them other trailers and government-owned houses that dotted the landscape in the very armpit of Oklahoma society. I guess some of what she said, did make sense, even though it weren’t all entirely true.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe you are what you are born into, and there ain’t nothing you can ever do to fight off Old Man Destiny. I wished it weren’t my true, but people would look at us and our dirty hands and feet from runnin’ around in the yard and from being barefoot all day, and I just knowed they was making assumptions about who we was and where we came from, and pro’bly rightly so. If a rich man walked into a store and he was covered in sweat and had dirt under his nails, there was no other explanation for that except that maybe he was out playing in a soccer game or workin’ in his backyard, planting a flower garden or something, and all it took for you to know he had money was by takin’ one good look at the clothes on his back. Take a poor man, under those same circumstances, and place him in that same store and you’d either take pity on him or be embarrassed for him for showing up in public, all soiled-up like that, and you’d thank your lucky stars you didn’t wind-up standing in the Welfare line and eating government cheese in your macaroni, right along with him.

The only thing is, no one else but me in my family seemed to notice all them rich people stopping and staring at us all the time and casting their judgments on us like they was God Hisself-reincarnated in a living, breathing human soul standing next to us in the cashier line at the Affiliated Food Stores. Believe it or not, poor people have a great deal of pride, and that pride just kept them browsin’ the aisles until it was time to hand their food stamps to the cashier, and pride kept them walking right out the front door, stompin’ the dirt off their boots the whole way. But, from where I sat, pride and ignorance went hand-in-hand. In our two-bedroom trailer, down at the Cloverleaf Trailer Park, deposited neatly under the bypass, Pride’s name was Earl and Ignorance’s name was Franny, and I secretly hoped that one day I wouldn’t turn out just like them.

It’s not that my Mama was stupid really, even though she didn’t have nothing more than a seventh grade education. She was smart enough, she just didn’t have a lick of common sense. She told me she had to drop out of junior high school to help take care of her baby sister, Mabel, while her Mama and Daddy went to work providing for her nine other brothers and sisters. Mama wasn’t much of a student anyway; she could barely read and write and it wasn’t until she was twenty years old that Doc Patton at the medical clinic, told her he thought she had Dyslexia, given her struggle fillin’ out paperwork all the time. When Mama first said she had a disease, I imagined twenty different ways she was gonna die right in front of me, and straightaway big old tears welled-up in my eyes. When Mama saw the terrified look on my face she immediately dismissed my fears, “Nah, Barley, it ain’t nothing like that! What I have is the sort of disease that makes your brain tell your eyes to see things backwards, that’s all. That’s why I’m none to good at readin’ and writin’.” And there it was. That “Ah-ha! Moment” I had been waiting for my whole life, that one explanation for why my mother was the way she was. One singular sentence described my mother’s condition perfectly and I knew Doc Patton had given her the proper diagnosis. I had always questioned the way my Mama saw things, in all fourteen years of my young life. But that day, when Mama came home plagued with the Dyslexia, it all suddenly began to make sense. Mama was just backwards.