Can You Say that again?

There’s been a decent amount of discourse about plagiarism on the news recently. Like probably most people, I have opinions, but I don’t really feel like mine are particularly important or elucidating in this case.  

What I want to talk about is being a writer myself, and being friends with other writers, and the specter of plagiarism for writers in general. Most of us really wish we were creating something completely new, frankly, so the idea of taking significant chunks of other people’s content and claiming credit is pretty much the opposite of what we’re about.  

When I talk about plagiarism as a threat, I mean the twin fears of being plagiarized and accidentally plagiarizing. Colleague and writing coach,  Ruth , listed “somehow accidentally plagiarizing” as one of her top five fears last week and I thought about writing a big long comment about it on her post, and then I decided just to write my own post instead. Since we’re about not plagiarizing over here. Or are we?  

Listen—this is not a silly fear, because it can totally happen. Here are three examples from my own life—one where I was (surely accidentally) plagiarized, and two where I accidentally did it? I guess? Maybe? Someone please tell me that none of these are actual plagiarism and I will rest much easier tonight. 

Exhibit A – Where I Was Accidentally (I’m just assuming) Plagiarized 

In  Favored One, a book I wrote over the span of ten years concluding in 2010, and which I then self-published in 2019, the main character, Miryam, has a small wooden box. The box was made for her by Yosef, her betrothed and eventual husband, who was a carpenter. The box resurfaces at various points in the story and becomes a physical receptacle for things Miryam is learning about Yeshua—a sort of visible expression of what the Bible describes as Mary “treasuring up all these things” and “pondering them in her heart.” But there is no such box in the Bible. I just made it up for whatever reason and it took on a significance even I wasn’t expecting. 

At Christmas in 2021, The Chosen TV series about the life of Jesus released an in-theatres season premier for their next season. It was lots of music, and one very brief in-the-future (from the time of the rest of the series) bit of an episode. In the episode, Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary have a conversation in which Mother Mary is reminiscing about truths she learned about her son. And then all of a sudden she instructs Mary Magdalene to go into a pile of blankets or something and pull out a wooden box in which she had more or less kept things that reminded her of things she had learned about her son. 

One of my friends who has read Favored One was sitting next to me in the theatre and when Mother Mary mentioned this box, my friend turned toward me, eyes wide, mouthing, What?? What, indeed. Surely this was accidental plagiarism. Surely Dallas Jenkins has never read Favored One, right? 

Exhibit B – Where I Accidentally Probably-Plagiarized 

Before Favored Onethere was Trees in the Pavement. Trees is a children’s novella (that adults love) about a Kosovar refugee girl and her family in London in the 1990’s. The title came from something I noticed the day I moved to London myself (exactly 26 years ago today, as it happens)—which was how weird the plane trees growing out of the sidewalks looked because they were constantly having their branches lopped so as not to get in the way of the houses. This became the opening image of the book and a really solid metaphor for the refugee experience.  

I was only hazily aware—because to this day I still haven’t read it myself—of another, much older, children’s book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I didn’t remember the existence of said book until sometime after the publication of mine, when someone left a copy on the back office desk at Starbucks. I leafed it open and discovered it was also about an immigrant child. This was frankly horrifying news to me, although I still don’t know what I would have called my book instead, and my editors (probably on account of not being American) did not flag this prior to publication. Accidental plagiarism? Well, it was certainly accidental. I’m less sure about the plagiarism, but there’s enough of similarity between the two titles that I still have a friend or two who persist in calling my book A Tree Grows in the Pavement. 

Exhibit C – Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do About This One 

Look, I’m a  Doctor Who fan (also known as a Whovian). But I’ve never been enough of a fan of anything (except for Jesus if we’re going to talk about my relationship to Him that way, I guess) to memorize stuff. I’m enough of a Doctor Who fan to have watched all the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctor episodes at least twice, and enough of a David Tennant fan to have seen most of his episodes more than that. But apart from “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff,” I remember very few lines verbatim. 

On Sunday I entered my church office to discover a sweet belated-Christmas gift on my desk. I was equal parts elated at its appropriateness and dismayed at its unwitting implications. Observe: 

“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one.” 

If you’ve been reading my work on Substack diligently, you may recall having seen something from me about how “stories are who we are.” (That’s…literally the title of the post in which I share this sentiment.) This is in fact my opening point in Follower, the nonfiction book I am discerning how to bring into the world. At least half of my first chapter is about this assertion.  

There is no question at all whether I heard this Doctor Who quote in my (many) watchings of the many episodes. And I’m quite chuffed to have a mug with a quote like that on it, seeing as that’s what I’m about, obviously. But I genuinely did not remember ever hearing this idea before I wrote it down; I certainly wasn’t intentionally ripping it off. So now that I know…do I need to go into my manuscript and add a footnote attributing the idea to a Doctor Who episode? 

I’d really love to hear what you think…and also to know if you have experience with accidentally plagiarizing or being plagiarized. What did you do about it?