I Stole From Paul Simon and Elvis Costello--Or Did I?

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Rhino Records

I remember the first time I plagiarized. I was a senior at Colgate University, an English major pulling an all-nighter, desperate to finish a 25-page term paper that I had yet to start. I can't recall the class, the topic, or even the professor. What I can recall is the crime. "These are the roots of history," I typed on my Smith Corona, "and the roots of history remain."

Sound familiar? By swapping out the word "rhythm" with replacing it with "history," I had repurposed a lyric from Paul Simon's "Under African Skies" into, most likely, a paper about the Homeric tradition in contemporary literature. At the time of the pillaging, I had been listening to Graceland, the album on which the song appears, nonstop. I was, in all likelihood, listening to that very song as I typed those stolen words, but this wasn't a case of simple osmosis. The truth was, I was trying to muddle through my thoughts in a haze of No Doz and impending doom and little Paul Simon had come to the rescue.

I felt bad about what I did, an English major at a loss for words, unable to think for myself. I also spent a few agonizing days waiting to be caught. The album was pretty much on constant rotation on the two radio stations that served our tiny college town. I knew my tweedy professor probably tuned in from time to time, probably while grading term papers.

Mostly, I just felt lazy and unoriginal, a college cliché who burst into song all over the page. (But at least I wasn't the kind of cliché who, like one kid in my school, mined Bono's catalog in between puffs of his clove cigarette.)

But those shameful feelings didn't stop my lyrical kleptomania. I did it again. And again. Swapping out a word here and there and then placing the song snippet in various contexts and scenarios. Most recently, I did it in my memoir, Up for Renewal, where I called upon both Rilo Kiley and Elvis Costello to help explain my urge toward repetition compulsion when it came to dating the most inappropriate men.

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Knopf

Thank goodness for David Shields and his new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which, among other things, is a literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre, one that doesn't draw distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, originality and plagiarism, memoir and fabrication, scripted and unscripted. Shields cobbles his book together, collage-like, using quotes from wordsmiths as diverse as James Joyce and Jay-Z, all unattributed and quotation-free. Readers like myself, who may have slept through most of their college survey courses, are forced to wonder what is proprietary to Shields and what he has lifted from others.

"Anything that exists in the culture is fair game to assimilate into a new work," he writes (or does he? Shields has included an appendix of sources in the back, but my book is an earlier, author's version, so I have no idea who is doing the talking here.)

This is all pretty heady stuff, appropriation as collaboration. And I do quite like thinking of Elvis Costello and myself as collaborators. (Although I wonder if he'd feel the same.) The central question—does authorship really matter if everything is fair game?—is, to put it mildly, thrilling. And for people like me, Vanilla Ice, and most recently, Helene Hegemann it's oddly absolving.

But what is OK? And more importantly, what are the rules? I tell myself what I'm doing is acceptable because I'm repurposing another form, turning a song into a sentence. But what if lyric lifting is a gateway drug for me? For years, I've been aching to borrow a stunning phrase from Dave Egger's You Shall Know Our Velocity!. In it, he writes of meeting an old lady. "I shook its fingers, which were cold and the skin loose, a small leather bag full of delicate tools." What an elegant stringing of words and sensations.

So what's stopping me from cutting and pasting Egger's magnificent description when I wish to describe my own experiences with geriatric hand shaking (other than a lawsuit)? What appeals to me so much about his description is its originality—but Shields's book has made me question even that. Don't all writer's hone their craft by reading better writers? Has Eggers, as Shields does so transparently in his book, merely reorganized his own delicate tool bag? And when does reorganization stop feeling fresh and start feeling like an intellectual property debate?

In the end, it's all about the author's intentions. Shields, brilliant, thoughtful, and yes, original, is calling for an "ars poetica for the burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a variety of forms and media." Me? Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends. Thumbnail credit: zach klein/flickr

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Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney'sMore

Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney's. Her book, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood (Crown) was released in 2004 and her memoir, Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over (Atria) was released in July 2008 and is now available in paperback.
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