A Fine Line

Plagiarism is generally considered unwise and dishonest.

Borrowing and imitating, however, can be a very useful way for writers and artists to enhance their work. For one of my classes, I have been assigned to come up with a piece of creative writing that is inspired by the required reading for the class. Once again, this is another of those no-rules assignments. All I have to work with is a page limit.

I’ve been so focused on prose this semester that poetry has taken a backseat, so I decided to mix it up and submit a collection of three poems for this assignment. As I took another look over the guidelines for the project, I noticed that my professor had put a very detailed notice in the instructions that basically said, “If you do not want to receive a zero for this assignment, don’t plagiarize another author’s work!”

Normally, I would never even consider passing someone else’s work off as my own. I don’t struggle to come up with unique ideas. However, I draw inspiration from many different sources, and there was a line in my head that I’d misremembered and wasn’t sure where I’d heard it. The line was, “Girlhood, much like godhood/begging to be believed.” A quick Google search took me to the poem “Churching” By Kristin Chang.

Had the line been from some random person’s social media account, I may have kept it. But this was from an actual, published poem, so it was back to the drawing board for me.

As I’m sure is apparent by now, writing is not just something I do for a grade. But when my work is being graded, I put more pressure on myself. When I first started at Stetson, my therapist warned me not to reveal too much about my mental health in my writing. She didn’t want me to be discredited because I am mentally ill.

When it comes to casual conversation, I am extremely withdrawn and private about my mental health issues. In the past, I’ve felt compelled to make sure all of my friends and acquaintances knew all the details about what was going on with my inner world. Now that I’m a little older and a lot less insane, I can be selective about what I share and with whom. For instance, if a coworker or classmate asks how I’m doing, I’m pretty likely to say, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” regardless of how I’m actually doing.

But when it comes to writing personal essays, fiction, and poetry, all bets are off. If I am expected to go fishing in my life experiences and catch a worthwhile topic, chances are it’s going to be something mental health related. In fact, the poems I wrote (which I will most likely not end up turning in) pretty much scream, “I was raped! And I’m mad about it!” There’s a time and a place for that. But is that time and place a class-wide forum in which people I have never interacted with will read my work and comment on it? Most likely not.

If I want to get to know my classmates, I have to first acknowledge that I am human. I have been so hellbent on proving that I’m a “superior writer,” that I have forgotten that there is no such thing as a perfect first draft, and that I am an undergraduate English major, not a New York Times bestselling author. My classmates are not my competition. We are all here to learn and help each other on the way.

In another class, I submitted a photo-essay titled “Long Live the Problem Child,” and I spent the weekend stewing about how cringe-worthy it was, how my classmates were going to pick it apart, roast me, and laugh at the photos I included.

When my classmates and I converged on Zoom today, I was shocked at their overwhelmingly positive responses. The essay included seven photos I’d taken with my commentary on each one. I usually do not mix my visual art and writing, as I am a firm believer that “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and that anything I may have to say in the vein of telling someone about my photo should already be understood if the photo is of any merit. I felt like I’d just sort of made a mishmash of self-centered ramblings and thrown it into the world, but this was not what my classmates saw.

One student said that she related to the dialogue I included in a scene between my psychiatrist and myself. Another said that the longer he looked at one of the photos, the more details he noticed, and called the photo “powerful.” Someone pointed out that there is a common theme of flowers in at least five of the photos and asked me why I’d chosen to include them.

All in all, while I may have been expecting a poor reception to my piece, I was happy to have not only received positive feedback, but to start a dialogue about mental health with my classmates. It didn’t turn into a game of “who has it the worst,” or a sob-session, nor did I feel like I was singled out as being crazy or different. In fact, as I listened to my classmates share about how my essay made them feel, I realized I had achieved exactly what I intended with it. It brought people together over common themes and made people think about how they related to those themes. Maybe I’m not as different as I thought I was.

What I genuinely crave is connection. That cannot happen without vulnerability. I am a textbook example of a perfectionist, but it is only when I can accept that I am not perfect, and be okay with that fact, that I can truly let people in.

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