So I back when I was in grade school, I started my first book. It was actually a writing assignment, but I knew it was going to be a book so I confidently titled it “Chapter One.” I’m not sure now what the exact instructions were. I was just excited that I was going to get to write something.
Back in those days, I was very into animal stories. Not the cheerful happy Disney kind. The kind where everyone dies at the end. I’d just finished reading one where the main character was a wolf cub who hides in a crack at the back of his den to avoid being killed with the rest of his littermates. I thought that crack idea was the cleverest thing ever. (Okay, okay, I was ten, all right.) And the murder of his family quickly paved the way for the wolf cub to become an orphan and have a series of adventures. That was pretty much the plot of all the books I’d been reading. Step one, protagonist animal’s family gets wiped out. Step two, adventures.
So I decided that I would write a story about a cougar cub because I liked cougars better than wolves. A cougar cub who was totally black like a black panther. (I know, I know, cougars don’t come in black, but I wanted him to be black. Ten years old, remember?) And he would have some kind of identifying white mark on his shoulder (because being a totally black cougar was not identifying enough apparently.) His siblings would all be normal beige cougars who would show up fine in the darkness, but because he was all black, he could hide in the back of the den and not be seen.
As long as he covered up that damn identifying white mark on his shoulder.
Anyway, Shadow or Midnight or White Spot or whatever his name was, survives a little cougar Armageddon by hiding in a narrow place at the back of the den. It was a variation on the crack thing only better because he was already pretty invisible to begin with.
We had a substitute teacher the day we turned our assignments in. She collected them all and went off to read them in the back of the room while we studied history or something. I was rather proud of my work. I mean it was about a black cougar. How could she not like a story about a black cougar?
Half an hour later, she showed up at my desk, story in hand. The look on her face was not promising. “You didn’t write this story. You copied it from somewhere.”
I felt a tremendous surge of guilt. “Well, just the crack thing. The wolf in the book hid in a crack.”
“So you did copy this from a book. Do you know what that’s called? That’s called plagiarism. That is illegal. These aren’t your words.”
“They are my words.”
“You said they came from a book.”
“No, the hiding in a crack came from a book. But it’s not exactly the same.” I was tremendously confused by this time. She was getting angrier and angrier.
“You can’t steal other people’s words.”
Everyone was staring at me. I sank down into my chair. “I borrowed the crack idea.”
She was practically breathing fire by now. “I don’t care about the crack idea. Did you write this yourself or not?”
“Of course I wrote it myself.”
She looked at me for a long moment, trying to decide if I was lying or not. “You wrote this all by yourself?”
She tossed it down on my desk. “Then it’s very good.”
I threw the story away on the way out of class that day. I was so terrified by the whole encounter that I never wanted to show anyone anything I’d written ever again.
I got over it.
But still, years later, today to be exact, when a co-worker reads something I’ve written on a project and asks “Did you write this yourself?”, I totally freeze up. I’m ten again looking up at that lady who is certain that I’ve copied my entire first chapter from another writer’s book and I don’t know what to say.
Of course I wrote it myself. Why do people keep asking me that?
There wasn’t even a crack in it.