Feeling a bit rusty in the writing department these days but I often when I feel conflicted about something I feel that it helps immensely to write about it. Joan Didion says,
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This is exactly true for my own process. It helps to clarify your thoughts by putting them out into the world.
I am certainly no stranger to the concept of plagiarism. If I am to be honest I have been on both ends of the spectrum with it. Many times in the past I have myself created things that I feel might fall a little “too close” to the source of inspiration in execution and in concept. There is sometimes a fine line between copying and “making something” your own and particularly in the beginning when I started I did not understand the line. I feel that I can say now that I have learned much better how to take the seed of something and work it into my own style and also to give credit when using the ideas of others. This has become an important focus in my work and my last few books have contained notes to original sources. It has taken me many years to get to this point and while I have made some mistakes in the learning of this lesson, it was a necessary part of my own path.
So how then, do I deal with the issue of people copying my own work? The last few years especially I have become aware of many instances of this. This has coincided with my work growing in popularity (of which I am immensely grateful) and so strangely, in a way, it is a kind of gift. Many of you have written me about it wanting to know my thoughts on the matter, how to deal with it, and if it bothers me. In every question period of every lecture I have ever given, I have been asked about this and here is my usual response.
When I was in art school I had an amazing illustration teacher named Linda Montgomery, whom I am still friends with. What was amazing about Linda was that she taught not only about tools and techniques but also the spiritual side of being an artist, the messy stuff, the human stuff, the stuff you really wanted to know about as a young student. The topic of plagiarism came up in the class discussion one day and the response Linda gave I have never forgotten. She said,
“When you do any kind of creative work there is an energy to it. This energy is made up of everything that is you, your personality, your life experience, the books you have read, the things that you are drawn to as a human being. This energy gives the work life and this is what people respond to when they see it. When someone copies you, their work will not have this same life or energy. It will not have the essence of you and consequently it will have a flatness to it.”
For the most part, when it comes up, I remember this. There are also times when I do not do a great job of it, and it feels extremely “icky” for a time and I try to sit with those feelings and figure out the root of them (as in today). And what often comes up is a feeling of “what if people like that person better than me even though they copied me?”, (especially in the case of published works). I think this comes out of a lack of confidence in my own work, or thoughts of scarcity (there won’t be enough to go around). Then I think about my own process and how I needed to learn those lessons myself, sometimes the hard way. Should I not allow others to make the same mistakes? I must come back to trusting in and believing in my own talent and abilities as that is all that I have control over in the moment. How often we flounder in this area.
I suppose my answer is a bit complicated. Does it challenge me? Yes. and also NO. But I have to do some important work with it. And I have to remind myself that I am utterly and completely unique (as all human being are), and that there will never be anyone who has the same collection of experiences, feelings, and lessons that I have had in my life. Therefore in actual fact it is completely impossible for someone to be able to copy you, except on a surface level, (which is not so interesting in my opinion.) We are an immense and complex ball of really interesting stuff if you stop to think about it. And if you work honestly at it, this incredible stuff will be infused into everything you do. This is the root of work that resonates with others. How incredible is that? This is what I hope to teach my students when I start teaching in a few weeks.
Whew. I feel so much better now. How bout you?
I told you writing helps.
(I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.)