Friday, June 3, 2005

Stealing the Soul

Leonard Pitts is a great writer and columnist for the Miami Herald. He’s so good, in fact, that somebody named Chris Cecil decided to copy his style…and everything else.

Dear Chris Cecil:

Here’s how you write a newspaper column. First, you find a topic that engages you. Then you spend a few hours banging your head against a computer screen until what you’ve written there no longer makes you want to hurl.

Or, you could just wait till somebody else writes a column and steal it. That’s what you’ve been doing on a regular basis.

Before Tuesday, I had never heard of you or the Daily Tribune News, in Cartersville, Ga., where you are associate managing editor. Then one of my readers, God bless her, sent me an e-mail noting the similarities between a column of mine and one you had purportedly written.

Intrigued, I did a little research on your paper’s website and found that you had ”written” at least eight columns since March that were taken in whole or in part from my work. The thefts ranged from the pilfering of the lead from a gangsta rap column to the wholesale heist of an entire piece I did about Bill Cosby. In that instance, you essentially took my name off and slapped yours on.

On March 11, I wrote: I like hypocrites. You would, too, if you had this job. A hypocrite is the next best thing to a day off. Some pious moralizer contradicts his words with his deeds and the column all but writes itself. It’s different with Bill Cosby.

On May 12, you “wrote:” I like hypocrites. You would, too, if you had this job. A hypocrite is the next best thing to a day off. Some pious moralizer contradicts his words with his deeds and the column all but writes itself. It’s different with Bill Cosby.

The one that really got me, though, was your theft of a personal anecdote about the moment I realized my mother was dying of cancer. “The tears surprised me,” I wrote. “I pulled over, blinded by them.” Seven days later, there you were: “The tears surprised me. I pulled over, blinded by them on central Kentucky’s I-75.”

Actually, it happened at an on-ramp to the Artesia Freeway in Compton, Calif.

I’ve been in this business 29 years, Mr. Cecil, and I’ve been plagiarized before. But I’ve never seen a plagiarist as industrious and brazen as you. My boss is calling your boss, but I doubt you and I will ever speak. Still, I wanted you to hear from me. I wanted you to understand how this feels.

Put it like this: I had a house burglarized once.

This reminds me of that. Same sense of violation, same apoplectic disbelief that someone has the testicular fortitude to come into your place and take what is yours.

Not being a writer yourself, you won’t understand, but I am a worshiper at the First Church of the Written Word, a lover of language, a student of its rhythm, its music, its violence and its power.

My words are important to me. I struggle with them, obsess over them. Show me something I wrote and like a mother recounting a child’s birth, I can tell you stories of how it came to be, why this adjective here or that colon there.

See, my life’s goal is to learn to write. And you cannot cut and paste your way to that. You can only work your way there, sweating out words, wrestling down prose, hammering together poetry. There are no shortcuts.

You are just the latest in a growing list of people — in journalism and out — who don’t understand that, who think it’s OK to cheat your way across the finish line. I’ve always wanted to ask one of you: How can you do that? Have you no shame? No honor or pride? How do you face your mirror knowing you are not what you purport to be? Knowing that you are a fraud?

If your boss values his paper’s credibility, you will soon have lots of free time to ponder those questions.

But before you go, let me say something on behalf of all of us who are struggling to learn how to write, or just struggling to be honorable human beings:

The dictionary is a big book. Get your own damn words. Leave mine alone.

P.S.: Chris Cecil was fired Thursday by Daily Tribune News Publisher Charles Hurley, immediately after he learned of the plagiarism.

Good for you, Mr. Pitts. And good for Mr. Hurley for kicking Chris Cecil’s ass out into the street.

It’s gotten so easy to cut-and-paste nowadays; most bloggers would have a tough time without being able to do it, me included. But giving credit where credit is due is fundamental, and ripping off someone else’s work and posting it as your own is just plain wrong. That is why I am so careful to note quotes as such with indentations and links. I want my readers to know who wrote what…yeah, like anyone would ever confuse my writing with the works of Leonard Pitts. And I hope that if I ever inadvertantly don’t give a proper citation, someone will let me know.

Mr. Pitts is right when he says that writing is hard work. Being original is tough, and trying to come up with a new idea for a post or a column or a novel is one of the hardest things there is about this business. There have been many times when I’ve seen a great posting at another blog or read a fine book or play and wished I’d written it. But I also respect their creativity and genius and go on, inspired not to copy their work but find the spark and the muse in my own ideas and life. That is one of the things that makes writing — for me at least — not just a diversion but a passion. That is why I will spend hours slaving over things like Bobby Cramer or Can’t Live Without You; writing that I know people may never read or see on the stage. That’s not why I write; it’s the sheer joy of doing it. I may be flattering myself to think that someone would steal my writing, but that’s another issue. People like Chris Cecil may steal the words, but they will never feel the passion behind them, and that’s what makes plagiarism more than just a crime: it’s a sin.