It is possible (though, of course, unlikely) that my letters for this week will lack some of their usual elegance and verve. If so, this is because they were written in haste: I am dashing off to work on getting out the vote. If you read this on or before November 8, I urge you to do the same. Canvass. Phone bank. Offer rides. Make that one last call to your apathetic or deluded relatives and friends. And vote. Our democratic institutions may depend on it. This is the most urgent, and confident, advice I have ever given.
I am in a creative writing workshop with seven other people. One of the writers in my group, “Don,” just submitted a story that has a very similar plot line to one I showed the workshop a month ago, as well as the same rather unorthodox format. I was already annoyed with him because his previous story contained snippets of dialogue virtually identical to some in a novel chapter I had submitted a few months before that, and used an epigraph from the same poem I had quoted under my chapter heading. Now he tells us that he is planning on writing a memoir about life with a sibling who has Asperger’s, which (except that my sister is on the more severe end of the spectrum) is exactly what I recently told the group I had on my back burner. How do I stop this? It is getting so I do not want to submit to the workshop any longer, but I would really miss the other members’ critiques.
Mimicked in Middletown
Oh dear. From the examples you give, it does seem that these similarities cannot all be coincidence—although many or even most of them may be unconscious imitation. And some, like the epigraph, might be Don’s idea of hommage or sampling or even some kind of cool (to his mind) workshop intertextuality. But, whatever is going on in Don’s head, the result is the same. His behavior is annoying, at best—and, at worst, he could do you actual harm by interfering with your writing or workshopping process, or conceivably even by competing unfairly with you for public recognition.
So what to do? I can think of a few options, none obviously better than the other.
One, of course, is to laugh it off and live with it. You do not say how far along you, on Don, are in your development as writers. If you are both at the earliest stages, or if you are appreciably more talented or successful than he is, Don’s borrowing from you probably won’t do any real harm to your reputation or success. Actually, it probably won’t, anyway, as long as you can keep it from getting to you.
But you say in your letter that what you want to do is put a stop to it. If that is the case, then you, or somebody, has to make sure that Don is aware of what he is doing, and let him know that you are understandably upset by it and want it to stop. Would you be willing to talk to him? I admit that doing so could be stressful. I am not sure I could manage it myself. But, if you can, you could try telling him that you’ve noticed some similarities in your work, all of them appearing in his writing after he has seen yours, and that, as flattered as you are that someone of his discernment seems to like your word choices, topics, and approaches, you wanted to give him a heads up, since you are sure he never intended anything by it or even knew it was happening.
No, I am pretty sure I could not manage that! I would be afraid that he would demand specifics and then quibble or bluster about every single one, while turning increasingly hostile. Or that he might be flabbergasted, realize what he had been doing, feel ashamed…and then turn just as hostile.
There is, of course, the possibility that he’d listen to your examples and then say that golly whiz, you do seem to have a point, and that your writing and ideas are so great they must be contagious. Then he might apologize and add, with a rueful smile, that you should be sure to call him out if he does it again, which he will try especially hard to avoid now that you’ve opened his eyes. And that he will revise or rethink the offending work. If he behaves like this, you should marry him. But it is a long shot.
What would probably happen is some combination of those scenarios. Don might say: “Wow, you’re right, didn’t see that!” about the dialogue, agree about the epigraph but claim that nobody owns quotations, and protest that similarities in the memoir plan come from your similar lives. This could actually be the best result: Don saves some face, gets to debate you a bit, internalizes a warning, and may not get too defensive or angry.
If the idea of a face-to-face conversation about this is as daunting to you as it would be to me, writing to him is another possibility. This avoids the unpleasantness of the actual encounter, but it risks engendering even more hurt or hostility if Don sees a written statement as more serious and official-seeming—as more of a big deal—than just chatting. Does your workshop involve written comments on submissions? If so, you could soften the tone by waiting until the next time Don acts up and letting him know in your comments on his manuscript, adding—or not, as the spirit moves you—some reference to previous instances. This has the beauty of being totally unnecessary unless Don transgresses again, and of seeming less confrontational than a targeted conversation or letter. But it does not solve the problem of the chilling effect on your workshop experience in the interim: to deal with that, you will have to take the initiative.
I rarely recommend going behind someone’s back before confronting them directly, but in this case—depending on how the workshop is run, and who is in it—it may make sense to express your concern to one or more of your fellow workshoppers and ask for their help and advice. For one thing, they may have new facts or insights to offer. Some of them may have had the same problem with Don, in which case those of you who are affected—joined, ideally, by one or more of you who is not, and might therefore appear more objective to Don—might decide to meet with him. If one or more other workshoppers also feel creatively inhibited by his presence, you may want to take joint steps to oust him, or to form a new group while freely poaching from the old one.
At the other extreme, you may find that, after you explain your concern and provide examples, your colleagues tell you that they don’t see a serious problem. If they do say this, and if you still strongly disagree, you have little choice but to confront Don directly or leave the workshop. But if, as I predict, they are basically sympathetic, they can help you decide what to do and act for you, join you, or least back you up. The best initial course may be a general discussion in the workshop of shared ideas vs. plagiarism, workshops as safe spaces, etc., naming no names. (Do you ever have agenda items? A facilitator? If not, just spread the word.) If Don can’t or won’t catch on, he should be encouraged to leave.
Whatever happens, try not to let Don, or any imitator, stall your writing process.
My roommate “Janet” and I, both grad students, have been sharing a two-bedroom apartment for over a year, and were both planning on staying through July at least. It is understood that we can entertain our boyfriends when we please. Mine teaches at a college about 100 miles away. He comes to visit every other weekend or so, and sometimes I visit him. But Janet’s boyfriend “Dylan” appears to have moved in. He has given up his own place, and it seems like he never leaves. He sleeps over every night, and is around more than either Janet or me during the daytime. Janet is usually at her lab from nine to five, and I am in class or at the library for much of the day, but Dylan is allegedly working on his thesis and has no classes, so he lies around our apartment smoking pot and watching Netflix on the TV in the living room, or playing music in Janet’s room, without headphones and without a fan to dissipate the especially acrid and sickening cannabis strains he seems to prefer.
I find myself spending less time at home and more at the library or cafes, but I suppose I can live with that. Nor would I much mind sharing my place with a stoner, if I were sure he was a friendly one. But Dylan dislikes me—I know this not just from his attitude but because Janet has told other people, who have told me—and I feel that he is pushing me around. On the rare occasions when I watch the TV, he will come in and say things like “How long are you going to be watching that romantic claptrap?” (Call the Midwife? Seriously??) or “Do you think you can stop hogging the TV by nine-thirty?”
The other day, at about three in the afternoon, I thought I was home alone and went to take a shower. As I love to do, I started singing. The next thing I know, I hear stomping and Dylan has thrown open the door and is screaming: “Shut the fuck up!” while I cower behind the half-sheer shower curtain. That evening Janet said to me that she heard I’d woken up Dylan, and that although his story was kind of amusing the way he told it, she hoped I’d learned my lesson and would stop singing in the house. I could only gasp.
Dylan also likes to sleep in the nude. This includes his daytime beauty sleep. If he needs to pee, he’ll just get up and head past my door to the bathroom without even pulling on his shorts or grabbing a towel. I keep my door closed these days. But yesterday I was about to go to a late-morning class and was coming out of the bathroom just as he was trying to come in. He took obvious delight in just standing there full frontal, with an amused expression on his face that I took as a kind of taunt. So I stared him in the eye, looked down at his dick (nothing much happening there), shrugged, and moved on—a scene that might have been funny in a movie, but left me kind of shaken. I am also positive that he is going to tell people about this incident as a way of showing how uptight Janet’s bitchy roommate is.
I started to talk to Janet about some of this, but she got all defensive before I could say more than: “I was just wondering, is Dylan—” At that point she interrupted me and said, among other things, that she was the one who had signed our lease, and that if Dylan wanted to stay here full-time I had nothing to say about it.
What should I do?
Stymied in State College
You should find another place. It doesn’t sound as if Dylan is leaving any time soon. If what Janet says about the lease is correct, and you have not written your name on anything, you have no legal obligation to remain, or to pay rent. You didn’t sign an agreement directly with Janet, did you? If so, I would like to see her try to enforce it; of course, these things can still be a big hassle, so you might want to negotiate if you signed anything at all. But it sounds as if you put nothing in writing— and, unless you are utterly destitute and can get no help from family, your university, or friends with couches, you should get out ASAP in any case.
Nor do I see any moral obligation here. Janet has been unwilling to hear your concerns or to support you, and seems blind where Dylan is concerned. Besides, she will have another full-time roommate to share the rent after you move out.
But maybe you consulted me not for encouragement to leave, but for advice on what to do assuming that you stay. I am not sure I can give you that advice, though. If you do feel that you must stay, I suggest—without enthusiasm—that you, Janet, Dylan, and some fourth person who supports you (your own boyfriend, perhaps), sit down and try to have a discussion. I suppose that doing so might help temper Dylan’s awfulness a little. Some curable misunderstandings might even come to light. But I have my doubts. The man sounds like an inveterate jerk.
Worse, he sounds like a creepy jerk. Except for the TV squabbles, the only interactions you wrote about involved his confronting you when one of you was naked. He may have been so enraged during the shower incident that your being nude and vulnerable didn’t even occur to him. That in itself would be disturbing; besides, I don’t believe it. His habit of wandering around the apartment in the buff, obviously knowing how you feel about it, also strikes me as alarmingly aggressive, as does the incident where he tried to stare you down in the bathroom doorway instead of apologizing, turning around, covering himself, or otherwise showing as much respect as one can in such a situation. And it sounds as if both incidents occurred when you and Dylan were alone in the apartment. That rings one more alarm bell.
So I repeat: get out. He may never do more than taunt and disrespect you, but that is plenty. And, then again, he may.
I hope you find a place where you can live and study in peace, with good-humored roommates (or none at all) and excellent acoustics in your shower.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Dave Morrison on Flickr