I Plagiarized My First Good Essay
My brief affair with stolen ideas
In 1995, I was assigned an Interpretive Essay (capital I, capital E) about Harper Lee’s characterization in To Kill a Mockingbird. This was tenth grade, Honors English 10. I was a reader, I was a teacher-pleaser, and I was already a writer, though I knew nothing about controlling the rate or structure of my words. I couldn’t not write, for what that’s worth, but I had no idea how to be serious or academic. Before 1995 I’d never heard words like symbolism, archetype, or white privilege. Before 1995, Harper Lee, and this essay, I did good and careful work, but I didn’t know why or how.
Harper Lee’s words — her ideas, actually, on a grand level rather than a syntactical one — comforted and awed me. They vexed me in a good way. It doesn’t matter that To Kill a Mockingbird is a children’s book, or an imperfect one. (Neither of which I considered.) It cracked me open. It was my first experience with intellectual and emotional discomfort, my first time sitting with good and bad together. That a woman wrote it, and that adults criticized other adults within its pages made me want to jump for joy. Scout was not me, and yet I was her. It matters, here, that I was expertly shepherded through the novel, and constantly asked to think. Ms. McMichael, my teacher, had no patience for passivity.
Reader response criticism — au courant in the 1960s and 1970s — trickled slowly down until it reached my English class in the mid-1990s. Public school, always artlessly late to a trend, was all about reader response by then. My formative literary moments were spent hunched over a book on my bed, propping it open with my heel, copying quotes into a “dialectical journal” on my lap. A blue ball-point line bisected each page of the journal. On the left: the author’s words. On the right: mine.
It doesn’t escape me that this affected my future as a book critic: over and over, it is my job to put my own words next to an author’s.
When I became a high school English teacher in the early 2000s, I talked to more than one history or science teacher who decried this method that empowered student readers. “All you English teachers do is teach them to write about their feelings,” they’d say. “I don’t care about what you feel. Just tell me what happened.” In the decade I’ve been teaching, I swung from reader response to formalism, and settled somewhere in the middle. The current trend in teaching English is to codify and quantify. To scan a text’s lexile level with a computer, and then to scan the kids’ brains with another. To diagram textual rhetoric in numbered, scientifically scripted paragraphs, and make stark assertions about the effectiveness of teachers, students, and literature. This is noise. This is not why we read. This is not why we write. This is not why we teach. But there’s hope. Nothing lasts forever.
In 1995, I didn’t know where to start my essay, reader response or otherwise. I didn’t trust my opinions to be the thing we were supposed to find and put on the page. I’m sure I was assigned brainstorming exercises. I’m sure they were unhelpful. I was a good girl, so I would have done them. But when it came time to write, I suffered mightily under the threat of my unwritten thesis. I didn’t know, then, that essay means try.
I remembered a quote I’d copied down into my dialectical journal about Mayella Ewell’s red geraniums. Everything about her life was sad; even at 14 I saw her as a tragic figure whose hateful, false accusations come from a life of poverty and meanness. I wanted to write my essay — my entire essay, mind you— about those red geraniums, and what it meant for Harper Lee to choose such a hardy plant for the girl to tend. A fleeting moment of beauty in an ugly life.
But this essay is about my fling with plagiarism, so:
Ms. McMichael had provided us — as a formatting example — a photocopy of the first page of one of her graduate school papers. I read and read it. It felt holy, the highest pinnacle of the kind of essay I could one day dream to write. I remember it well: the clean lines of her MLA heading and her lengthy opening paragraph about Bless Me, Ultima. She wrote with authority I’d never imagined. I hadn’t read the book, but I could tell she was really saying something. I wanted that.
I had something to say, but no framework in which to say it. No language for my own thoughts. Surely she wouldn’t notice if I borrowed her sentence structure? Her confidence? I was careful. Meticulous. Is smart the right word? Or sneaky? I changed each sentence one word at a time. I changed the ideas. But make no mistake. The structure was not mine. The diction level? Borrowed. The complexity? Stolen. I mad-libbed it. Word by word I took her syntax. I swallowed her sentences, and regurgitated them as my own. I remade her introduction into my introduction.
Was borrowing her framework wrong? Probably, since I submitted it without attribution. But that one paragraph shaped the rest of my paper. I wrote on borrowed authority, but it worked. It shaped me. It allowed me to feel good writing in my fingers.
I got an A. And I kept getting As. More important: I was addicted to the authority I felt on the page.
In my last quarter at UC Davis, I fought to squeeze into a painting class with the artist Wayne Thiebaud. I’d studied his work enough to know he was a treasure, and this was a rare opportunity to learn from him directly. Each day he’d saunter into class and paint before us on his little stool, wiping his brushes on a clean, folded pair of his old underwear. Not one to waste, I suppose, he wasn’t ashamed to use his tighty-whities for a rag. He had kind eyes and wild hair. Everything about him was magic.
His first exercise required that we paint three symmetrical cubes with a light source and visible shadows — but he forbid our use of black or white paint. We struggled to accomplish this impossible task. When I stayed after to ask for help, Mr. Thiebaud’s TA shrugged and laughed under his breath. “He’s making you paint his work,” he said. “He wants you to feel it.”
The TA explained to me how trying to copy even one color — like a blue sky — from another artist’s painting could change you. Because if that blue was painted over orange, it vibrated with the first color. The only way you could feel the pulse of that blue is to paint it.
What matters to me now, as a critic and a teacher, is the interplay between my thoughts and the author’s intent. What matters is in that ineffable space, the spark between my life experience and the thing on the page. The orange under the blue. There are no cheat codes. There is no teacher’s edition with the answers. There’s no perfect essay. A book means whatever it means on one day, to one person. Often, that person is me, and I try. An essay is an attempt at communication: Here is my idea. Here’s why. I’ve done that exercise a handful of times, now, copying to learn. Sometimes it’s been assigned to me — stylistic imitations and such — other times it’s been just me picking apart my heroes’ work and trying to recreate it, or assume their lack of fear. Each time, I look for the vibrations underneath. I steal confidence.
And sometimes, when I’m writing now — 22 years later — I can still feel Ms. McMichael’s words in my fingers.