When I was a sixteen-year-old introverted uber-geek obsessed with UFOs, my 11th grade English teacher asked to speak with me one day after class. As I nervously pulled up a chair and sat down in front of her desk, clad in my usual vintage Air Force camouflage jacket and black Star Wars hat, she told me that she had some concerns about the recent essays I’d written.
First she asked me if I would please consider writing about something other than government cover-ups and alien abductions. I thought for a moment, and said that I would try. She paused, meeting my eyes before voicing what was clearly her main reason for asking me to be potentially late to my next class. “Is this writing actually your own? Or are you copying other people’s work?”
I was taken aback, having never been accused of plagiarism before. “It’s mine, yes,” I said. “I haven’t copied from anyone.” She held my gaze for a moment and then nodded, saying, “Well, your writing is impressive. It’s very good for someone your age.” I smiled and thanked her, standing up and shouldering my overweight backpack as I left the room hurrying to my next class. I remember feeling pleased by the compliment but also fairly annoyed that she had doubted me. And somewhere deep in the recesses of my teenage conscience, there was also a small contingent of thoughts skulking about, wondering if she might be on to something.
I was, after all, constantly reading books about my favorite topic—Communion by Whitley Strieber, Abduction by John Mack, Crash at Corona by Stanton T. Friedman. Perhaps I wasn’t only conveying in my writing the information I gleaned, but also other writers’ styles, voices, and perhaps even entire sentences, either paraphrased too closely, poorly cited, or lifted wholesale from my memory of what I’d read?
Looking back on it today, I think my teacher was probably more right than I could have imagined at the time. That was a few months before I stumbled upon Buddhism and its notion that we live in a radically interconnected universe, with our every action and thought completely dependent upon previous actions and thoughts, entwined in a matrix of karmic connectivity stretching in all directions, at every level of existence, forward and backward in time. When I read The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot around the same time—which advocated the idea that the universe behaves as a piece of holographic film, with every part of the image reproduced in every other part, no matter how small—I became convinced that our ordinary perception of the world as being divided into distinct, separate things is purely an illusion. No man is an island, and no thought is entirely original. Everything we say and do is based on the influence of prior sayings and doings, by ourselves or others, and everything is occurring within contexts within contexts within contexts, ad infinitum. Modern systems and chaos theories revolve upon this principle; we see it everywhere in quantum mechanics and Einsteinian physics; and even classical Newtonian physics depends upon the truth of it. In contemporary evolutionary philosophy, it’s often referred to as the “process perspective.”
But who knew that Mark Twain was a believer in the interconnected nature of reality, as well?
A fascinating recent post on Letters of Note shares a letter Twain wrote to his good friend Helen Keller in 1903, after learning that the famous deaf and blind author had been accused of plagiarism for a short story she’d written when she was only 12. Twain’s process perspective on plagiarism is perceptive and profound:
Over the next few days, I’ll be exploring additional signs that we’re living in a matrix of cosmic connectivity from which there may, in fact, be no escape.