She called me up to her desk in a quiet moment during class. In the few seconds that it took me to walk up to her, she transformed from my beloved 4th grade teacher into the Queen of Hearts. She looked stern and scary sitting there on her throne, peering over her glasses. Even the desk loomed larger than normal as I stared up at her and tried to decide what to do with my hands.
“I have to ask you a question. It’s important for you to answer honestly. Have you read this book?” She pulled out a paperback copy of a book that I had devoured last summer. It was about a boy who lived in the wilderness and had a complicated relationship with his dad.
“When you wrote your story, did you copy this book?”
Did this rabbit hole have a trap door? I would have pulled it gladly. I shook my head.
“So the idea for your story was all your own?”
I nodded again, but this time with less conviction. I felt flushed and shaky. She stared hard at me for a few seconds and then, “Ok then, thank you, dear. You may sit down.” I made my way to my desk, relieved to still have my head.
Later that spring, my parents took me down to Illinois State University for the conference. They dropped me off at a building on campus and I merged into a stream of other ‘Young Authors’ entering an auditorium. After hearing a guest speaker, we split off into smaller groups for writers workshops.
I felt a serious lack of enthusiasm for this event that had promised to be so exciting. The nagging chicken scratch of a thought that had been working itself around in my brain for the past few months was now an indelible scroll of shame: You don’t belong here. I hadn’t done it on purpose. I hadn’t set out to steal someone’s idea. I’d just loved the book so much that I had wanted to write about that boy and his dad. The words and illustrations were my own but the characters were not. Now I could see how dumb I’d been.
The leader of our workshop was treating us with deference and kindness and I wished he would stop, already. I dreaded the moment when I’d have to share something about my story. When it was my turn I gave the shortest and most misleading synopsis I could think of, turning a minor plot point into the main idea so nobody would recognize the story.
On the drive home I kept thinking about it, even getting a little angry with my teacher. Why had she let me receive the award and attend the conference if she knew? Did she want me to feel guilty as punishment for my plagiarism? But I wasn’t really mad at her. I wasn’t even mad at myself for doing something ethically questionable, because I hadn’t set out to deceive anyone. What stung was that I had exercised so little imagination.
After getting home I came to the terrible conclusion that I’d ripped off all kinds of books and movies in my other short stories. I’d been ‘inspired by’ L.M. Montgomery and Ray Bradbury, among others. As the critics might say, my work was derivative, horror of horrors! It was a sobering moment for my 9-year-old self to have to admit that I was an unoriginal fraud.
I still feel a residual shame when I think back to the experience. The last time I Googled my name, one of the first things to come up was a newspaper article acknowledging me and the other students “being honored for their writing skills”. It made me cringe. Maybe this had something to do with a shift to writing poetry in high school. Maybe it’s why my novel is still in the ether — because if I do put pen to paper I’m deathly afraid that it will be Michael Chabon’s or John Irving’s words that will appear on the page. I actually sketched out a storyline for a novella and when a friend remarked on a similarity with the movie Divergent, which I hadn’t even heard of at that point, I set it aside. A lot of writers must have this fear. Most writers are readers, and I’m sure we’ve unconsciously absorbed everything from small details to writing style.
I don’t want this fear to paralyze me. If I had a vision board – which I don’t – it would be covered with Hot Type pages ripped out of every issue of Vanity Fair. I can’t die until I’ve written something that
gets mentioned is worthy of mention in that magazine. It might seem like a small or misplaced goal, but hey, dreams are not to be judged. I have to try. Let’s hope I have at least one original idea knocking around in there.