Why Most Writers Are Plagiarists
March 29, 2020

Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.” Albert Einstein

Would you say you’re a natural-born writer? Do words seem to flow out of you with little or no thought? Well, your gift isn’t so much writing as remembering. You remember words and phrases. You repeat them. It doesn’t make you a natural writer. It makes you a plagiarist.

Most writers are plagiarists. They produce columns in newspapers, they write books. They fill every blank space they can find, sending off their drafts, expecting everyone to recognize their genius. Only they’re not geniuses, and they don’t get published. And it’s not because nobody gets them.

We get them just fine. In fact, if we read at all, we remember those exact same phrases. That’s the biggest problem with plagiarists. They’ve followed their heroes so much, it makes them incapable of original thought. Heroes are a bitch for all of us.

Here’s the real reason these “natural-born writers” don’t find publishers. Editors spot them. They spot them because most editors thought they were natural-born writers, too. That’s why rejection letters all sound the same. Editors can’t write original responses. They’re all plagiarists.

Nobody sues apes. That’s why Fox News won’t hire anyone smarter than an ape.

Plagiarism goes by many names, the most common being “journeyman” or “journeywomen.” Their job is to use common words and phrases, creating what people think is new but isn’t. You could say newspapers exist solely to produce the thoughts someone else has produced already. Magazines call them columnists.

Platitudes are an important part of the communications industry. They’re easy to edit and rarely liable. Organizations tend to go after the original source, so it’s better to ape someone else. Nobody sues apes. That’s why Fox News won’t hire anyone smarter than that.

If you want to be a writer — and not an ape — know this first: Writers aren’t born. If anything, they’re hatched. By “hatched,” I mean there’s a long gestation process first. During this time, they learn writing structure and develop original thinking.

Once they break out of their shells, they either fly or sit on a tree limb. Most journeymen never leave the limb — or their shells, for that matter. Fox News loves these types. You can’t sue an egg, either.

Together they found lots of truth and lots of lies. It was all there on the highways, the lunch counters and the backwater salons.

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s whatcha think,” Jack Kerouac once said, and he knew how hard it can be. He waited nine years to get “On the Road” published. In that time, he wrote six other novels, but knew “On the Road” was the one. It had the most thinking, the clearest vision, the most pain. Like Stephen King once said, “…you have to remember every scar.”

Kerouac knew he was showing America something they hadn’t seen before. Dean Moriarty (based on his friend, Neil Cassidy), was the traveler, the man searching for truth. Kerouac had taken that journey with him. Together they found lots of truth and lots of lies. It was all there on the highways, the lunch counters and the backwater salons.

It was no surprise the book touched so many. We weren’t concerned with the style so much as the vision. Seeing what nobody else sees is what we call a tortured blessing. Kerouac was a pretty tortured guy.

When you “think what no one else has thought,” as Einstein wrote, he knew what he was talking about. So much of what Einstein expressed in his younger years was thought to be bunk. Time would prove him right — but not always right. As he once admitted “I’ve been wrong a lot, too.”

You have to be willing to be both if you’re a writer. J.P. Donleavy was at the height of his popularity with “The Ginger Man” and “The Onion Eaters.” Then he wrote an article on New York where he grew up.

The article was so critical of the city, there was a huge backlash. Donleavy retreated to Ireland. He only wrote a few more books. Fame and popularity are fleeting. He found that out the hard way, but at least he was honest. And he liked Ireland better than New York, anyway.

“A recent police study found that you’re much more likely to get shot by a fat cop if you run.”

You have to like being out on a limb to be a writer. Even humorists know this, and they’re just trying to be funny. Dave Barry is considered one of the funniest men in America, yet he’s offended more people than he can count. “I don’t understand how people can get so upset over booger jokes,” he said.

Yet, even in humor, Barry has been able to define the weaknesses of America in one sentence: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, the word would be ‘meetings.’”

One of my favorite lines came from Dennis Miller, former news anchor with Saturday Night Live: “A recent police study found that you’re much more likely to get shot by a fat cop if you run.”

Writing isn’t about making the reader feel comfortable. If anything, it should do the opposite. I found this quote on Pinterest: “When things aren’t going well, you’d be amazed how much listening to inspirational stories about other people’s successes, doesn’t help.”

It doesn’t help because it shouldn’t help. Why should you feel good about what other people are doing? Look at all those people on Facebook surrounded by family and friends. Over half of all marriages end in divorce. Why isn’t anyone posting their divorce papers? That’s what I’d like to see. I’ve been divorced.

We’ve learned to take comfort in food and material consumption. We want bargains and fat. That’s why we’re fat and poorly dressed.

Truth isn’t always easy to take. That’s probably why real writers suffer so much. They deal in truth. They want us to see the truth. The best comedians can do this with a few words. Like Richard Pryor’s great line: “I had to stop drinkin’ cuz I got tired of waking up in my car doing ninety.”

Fiction may be the greatest reality we face. America is the land of fiction. John Updike once wrote “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” We’ve learned to take comfort in food and material consumption. We want bargains and fat. That’s why we’re fat and poorly dressed.

Everyone has a choice when they write. Just like every comedian. We’re all hatchlings in a way. Some of us will never get out of our shells. Like in Shel Silverstein’s poem “I Won’t Hatch,” about the little chickie who won’t come out of her shell. “I’m staying in here where it’s safe and warm,” she says.

You can’t please everyone. Good writers don’t bother.

That’s what most writers do every day. They won’t hatch. It’s so much easier to stay safe and warm, to plagiarize and write platitudes. It pays the bills. But you still end up fat and poorly dressed.

In the end, it all comes down to pleasing yourself. And that means being honest and going out on a limb. You can’t please everyone. Good writers don’t bother. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “If you open a window and try to make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

So, to all those natural-born writers out there, guess what? You ain’t. You’ve got pneumonia. The whole internet has pneumonia.

Maybe one day we’ll stop coughing, and really start writing.


Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

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