Tag Archives: fear

Creative Plagiary*

I took a creative writing class once. Long ago when I was an English Major at a windswept Midwestern university. The professor was Lucky Strike…Really. Well, that’s what we called Lucien Stryk, behind his back at least. He has gone on to become a well known writer of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, collections, and translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry. In fact there is even an award for the translation of Asian or Buddhist poetry named after him that is given annually by the American Literary Translators Association.

Translation brings me to an interesting subject. What is it that translators do? They take someone else’s work and bring it over into their own words. Isn’t it a kind of authorized plagiarism?

I bring up the question for a reason. It is not exactly guilt, I don’t think. But perhaps learning about the career of Professor Stryk as a translator has eased a burden. He took other people’s writing and put it into his own words.

Stryk had given an assignment. It was due the next day. I went back to the room I was sharing off campus with three other guys. But I couldn’t think of a thing to write. So I did what I often do when I don’t know what to do. I took a nap.

Suddenly, I woke up in a sweat. A story had come to me in a dream. I yelled to one of my roommates: “Quick! A pen!! Paper!!”

I wrote it down feverishly. I could barely keep up with the ideas. I turned in the story and waited for the teacher to comment. A week went by. He called me into his office. He looked troubled.

“I would never have figgered you to be a plagiarist,” he said.

I was stunned. “The story you wrote,” he said. “It bears a remarkable resemblance to a chapter in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son.

“It can’t be,” I protested. “I have never read the book.” And I thought I was telling the truth.

He reached up to his shelf and handed me a worn paperback copy of Wright’s great book. I read in amazement.
Oh, I had missed many of the details and there were significant differences. My story was about white kids in a neighborhood of tenements in Chicago, like one I had lived in on the north side when I was in elementary school. Not black kids on the south side many years earlier.

And my story didn’t have anything to do with race. It focused on the frustration these inner city kids had growing up within view of the city’s affluent high rises.

They daydream and fantasize being wealthy businessmen — even the president. But there is an underlying resentment at the world they feel trapped in. One has a possible job offer. But it feels servile and beneath his dignity. Somehow they come up with the idea of robbing a local store. It will feel good and they will have some cash in their pockets. But the main character has second thoughts and comes up with a way of forcing the whole thing off without admitting his fears even though it causes a permanent break with the other guys. He commits an act of bravado and walks out of the store alone, very much alone, but with a strange sensation of relief. “He started to laugh,” I had written. “He felt something warm run down his cheek. ‘Jesus,’ he said to himself. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.'”

I looked at Stryk’s worn copy of Native Son.

There on the page in black and white were the almost the exact same words: “‘Jesus,'” he breathed. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.'”

I was stunned. I protested and explained how the story had come to me. That I had never heard of Richard Wright. I didn’t even know enough to be ashamed of that. Somehow I must have been believed because I wasn’t punished. But, for over thirty years I puzzled about that.

Then a few years ago I came across a copy of a collection of short stories and essays called This is Chicago .** It was a book my father had been given when he was in the hospital in the early 50s. Right about the time we lived in that horrible place.

I turned the pages, remembering stories I had read so long ago. And in among the stories I remembered was one I had completely forgotten: “South Side Boy” by Richard Wright. I looked closer – at a footnote to the title. The story was a chapter from Native Son, copyright credit right there on the page. I laughed quietly to myself as my eyes moistened.


*My wife chuckled and challenged the use of the word “plagiary” in the title. But I found the wonderful website Plagiary.org and decided to keep it.
** An essay I wrote a dozen years ago relates how I found the book and includes a very short version of this story. See How the Web Brought Back my Childhood, Explained a Mystery, and Made an Honest Man of My Cousin Can one plagiarize from one’s own work?


It is not the wind

It is not the wind.

The house shudders. A cold front is moving across the Midwest. Tiny snow crystals blown by high winds have returned. I hear a wail as it comes down the street, the cold drafts seeping through the walls.

But it is not the wind that I hear and it is not the cold that chills me and frightens me.

It is not the wind that woke me. What I hear is the wail of a thousand children, a thousand thousand children and their parents for whom the safety net has just been removed, from whom hope has just been stolen

I am up in the middle of the night, shaking and in tears at what I fear is the end of the most promising presidency since my childhood. How sad that it seems that it was only our projection on the blank slate of Barack Obama – large shadows of finger puppets projected by a flashlight on a back yard sheet

The President has written himself into a straight jacket from which, I fear he will not be able to get free. His is not Houdini. How can he start a desperately needed jobs program and cut domestic spending? How can he pass the most needed health care reform without initial increases in costs even if they might ultimately result in savings? How can the economy be restored without stimulating small business and entrepreneurs? How can families survive without extensions of unemployment insurance, and food stamps and job training and . . . and . . .

We have waited a year for bold action. We should have known better. Bold action is more than rhetoric.

When I saw the headline in my email Monday night, “President Obama Rather Be Really Good One Term President – ABC News,” I knew another shoe would drop. It reminded me of all the Presidents who have boasted of doing the hard thing when it would have been easier to do what was popular – In each case they were doing what they thought would be popular instead of the right thing.

I pray that I am wrong, that it was only a nightmare and in the morning I will find I imagined it all or that somehow I am missing something and that Wednesday night he will make sense of it all and soar again.

But I fear it is not just the wind that keeps me awake tonight.

It’s a free country, Isn’t it?

A few days ago on the way to work, my El car stopped while crossing the Chicago River and I used my Palm Centro to snap a couple of shots of the images mirrored in a highrise office building alongside the tracks. I decided I liked them and posted them in a new album, called City Scenes, on my Facebook page. I decided I would like to add to the collection.

Today was a beautiful day and I had a number of errands to do so while walking around the Loop at lunch, I snapped dozens of shots of buildings, skylines and reflections. I happened to be across Clark Street from what we used to call First National Bank Plaza (First National has been swallowed up a number of times and I don’t know which bailed out entity has naming right at the moment. Chase, I think.)

As I was shooting I heard a booming voice from nowhere ordering me not to take pictures. I shouted into the air asking the speaker to identify himself but got no response. Behind me was a building entry with driveway that I now think leads to the basement of the bank. I took a lot of photos, including one of an armored car driving in. The guard, who was the voice, hid his face as I kept shooting.

I took care of some business and on my way back I turned on the video function of the camera. I didn’t capture much, but it did draw the guard out from his station, covering his face and ordering me to stop. When I asked on whose authority he hesitated and then said the bank. I told him I was on public property and invited him to call the police(actually it wouldn’t surprise me if the bank has an easement for the driveway.) He hept hiding his face. I suggested he should wear a mask, at which time he said he would break (or take – my adrenaline was too high to be sure) my camera. At that point I started to call the police but then discretion outweighed valor and I walked away. If I weren’t planning a vacation next week, I might have stood my ground, but the tickets are non-refundable.

I will post the photos on my Facebook site when I get a chance. (The Palm Facebook software only lets you post five photos at at time.)