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Confessions of a Plagiarist

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Portrait of the "author"
Home page illustration by Danny Jock

By Quentin Rowan

11/30/11

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(page 2)

One night in the middle of January 1997, I was at a dance party in someone's living room. I was guzzling Genesee Cream Ale but couldn't get drunk. Everyone was saying, "Let's dance all night!" But I knew I couldn't dance all night. That little thought, trivial as it sounds, was my moment of clarity. If only I had recognized some more "can’ts" at that moment. The second time around I did all the things you're not supposed to do: met a girl, got into a relationship, found a sponsor who I thought was really cool rather than a good AA'er, and, most crucially, instead of taking it one day at a time I got obsessed once more with literary fame. The one thing I did manage to do is stay sober: it's been nearly fifteen years.

Over that same time period, I've fought a mostly losing battle with plagiarism. We’ve all heard in meetings the description of the alcoholic as the egomaniac with an inferiority complex. That was—is—me in a nutshell. I wanted recognition, I wanted praise, but I had no faith in my own abilities. I had grown so used to being thought of as a wunderkind that a kind of false self emerged, one that was confident and hard-working and thrived on adulation and encouragement. It was an image that was completely at odds with the fear, self-doubt, and dishonesty that occupied my skull.

Between the first piece of writing I stole in the library all those years ago and my fake spy thriller, I struggled with plagiarism in the same way sober people struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling.

I was a voracious reader and always marked passages I particularly liked or wished I'd written. Though the number of pieces of writing I published—poetry, fiction, book reviews—is finite, the number of sources I stole from seemed endless. For example, my short story Bethune Street, which appeared in The Paris Review, contained phrases and passages I’d lifted from Graham Greene, Robert Stone, Stephen Wright, Janet Hobhouse, and Howard Nemerov. That's all been discovered now. If you go online and Google my name you can find all kinds of Internet scholars making lists of the cribbed sources.

Between the first piece of writing I stole in the library all those years ago and the debut of my fake spy thriller, I struggled with plagiarism in the same way others struggle with smoking, sex addiction, food addiction, and gambling. Especially gambling, where you're always chasing your last thrilling high, regardless of the awful consequences. I tried to practice the first step with my obsession many times, to admit I was powerless over it  and it was making my life unmanageable, but it never worked. I just couldn't let go of it. My whole identity had become that of an aspiring writer. I wanted to be famous.

Somehow, I managed to reduce the theft in my mind to a much more abstract thing. I was taking words that I wished were mine from writers that I loved. Charles McCarry, author of The Tears of Autumn, is my favorite writer of all time, in either spy fiction or literary fiction. Was I conscious of the fact that something I was doing would affect him in the real world? The answer is no. I couldn’t see that far ahead. I wouldn't let myself. Through a maze-like process of denial that I knew so well fro the rooms of AA, I was able somehow to push those thoughts to the background. The same goes for the rest of the long list of thriller writers I plagiarized: John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Adam Hall, Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, Daniel Silva, and more. These were individuals who had brought me pleasure and enjoyment as a reader; and had I been able to think of them as anything other than satellites in my monomaniacal orbit, I don't think I could have done it.

It wasn't any fun: I would look at the books on my shelf and think, "Oh, that's a great book. Oh, Wait a minute, I stole from it." And then I’d have to hide the book somewhere so it didn’t remind me I’d stolen from it. If the books were people, it would be akin to domestic abuse: I was hurting the ones I loved.

Throughout the process of compiling the series of unattributed quotations that made up Assassin of Secrets, my mind would occasionally turn to this: what if I'm found out? Since the plagiarism story broke, many people have speculated that this was a form of self-sabotage. I would probably agree. There was some kind of built in death wish to the whole process. Did I want to be caught? As hard as it's been, it's been a massive relief, spiritually, to know I never have to do it again. In AA, they say you're only as sick as your secrets.

So I guess I was pretty sick.

Before my book came out,  whenever I thought about being discovered, I thought about killing myself.

Would I jump off the Williamsburg Bridge? Take pills? Slit my wrists? But when the dreaded call from my publisher finally arrived, I knew I couldn't end my life. In the five minutes between hearing I’d been busted on the James Bond forum and the big conference call with the publisher, I had to make a choice. I opened my window, and thought about climbing out. Then I paused for a moment.  Maybe I'm just a wimp, but in that moment I realized there were too many people I loved on this earth to leave it. I'm still alive mostly because of AA.

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