Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Accidental plagiarism: a terrifyingly narrow escape

Last week I wrote a funeral scene that pleased me enormously. Wrenching, raw, powerful. Wow, I thought, I nailed that! I kept coming back to two images I'd used, one in dialogue, "mothers are such wingless things," the other in description, "lullaby, with elegy blowing through it." I couldn't stop thinking about them. I kept pulling up the paragraph and re-reading. I couldn't let it go. (This is not normal behaviour for me, FYI. I love beautiful prose, but I don't generally fall in love with my own. I'm a believer in prose serving story and character, not standing out from it.) Gradually, I grew unsettled. Then suspicious. These images didn't feel quite right. Good, yes; evocative, absolutely; perfect for the period, no doubt. But not right.

I tried to trace their origins back through that labyrinthine machine I call my writing mind, and the trail petered out.

By now I was feeling thoroughly disturbed, so I did something I've never done before: plugged the words into Google. And, bang, there it was, a poem, "The History of Mothers and Sons," by Lisa Furmanski. I'd lifted not just the imagery but the words, wholecloth.

I've never believed those sad sack writers who, when pilloried for plagiarism, wail, "It was accidental!" But now it's happened to me. Well, almost; I caught it long before publication.

But it feels like a very narrow escape.

So how did it happen? I don't know. I used to read Poetry magazine, so my guess is I read "...Mothers and Sons" in the magazine one night before falling asleep and the imagery burrowed deep into my subconscious. But I still have no idea how and why my brain encysted those exact words, then presented them to me as my own in another context. I tremble at the thought of what might have happened if I hadn't caught it.

And now I'm worried that I've lifted other things by mistake.

So my question is: how do we, as writers, guard against this? We can't plug everything into a search box. (Or can we? Has anyone out there tried plugging a whole novel into a search engine?) I rely on my subconscious to provide me with nifty images. I trust it. Now I'm wary of it. I hate that.

Does anyone have any similar stories to tell? Even better, do you have any tricks for dealing with this worry?

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