The Plagiarist

The woman in my writing group she’s buzzing, animated like she’s about to open a birthday present. She’s grinning, all teeth and eyes and flushed cheeks, grasping onto the chapter of my book printed onto three white sheets. This writing group is formal, work emailed for critique a full four days before meetings. Try sending it in later, three days or even two, and you’re out, no messing about. The sheets in the woman’s hand creak and whine she grips so hard, her knuckles turning white, bone joints pushing out stretching the skin. Her smile is fixed and brittle, eyes darker than normal. It hits me. She’s not excited but angry, and her anger is directed at me.

The chapter in the book I’m writing peruses on the grimness of winter. Winter smells of nothing, it observes; not like the summer I love, with its flowers and foliage, the hum of malty pollen and cut grass delighting the senses.  If I am honest with myself I suspect I might go on a bit in this chapter and the work needs editing and refining, but this is my first draft of many so there’s time to let it prove, like a good loaf. I got the winter weather idea coming from a pub lunch with friends, a pub with gardens and grounds around it. In the warmer months it’s fresh and green and smells amazing but in January the garden is just damp and dull. I scribbled “no smell” in Olive, my notebook, on the train home. That’s what notebooks like Olive are for, to scribble down your observations and the odd cheeky word for later use.


Back in the writing group the woman is staring. I’m wondering, maybe she doesn’t like my chapter, thinks it’s crap. I hope not because I’m pleased with it.

‘Who wants to go first?’ I say.

Not bothered, shrugs everyone. No one ever wants their work to be examined and critiqued first although we are all friendly enough. Not friends exactly, but cordial companions.

‘We’ll do mine first, then,’ I say.

The woman’s brittle smile flinches, but she grins.

‘Well, what did you think?’ I throw it out to the room and brace myself to hear views on my chapter.

‘I like the thing about the weather,’ says one member. ‘It might need some editing though. To give it more punch.’

Fair enough. I saw that coming. We go around the circle and I’m getting good feedback, some a bit snipey but nothing I can’t take. Then it’s the woman’s turn.

‘Well, what do you reckon?’ I repeat.

She glares and smirks simultaneously. A nervous giggle scratches my throat, and escapes; I can’t help it.

Her features harden. ‘I know where you got this from!’ She stabs the sheets with her finger.

‘Where I got what from?’

‘The thing about winter not smelling of anything!’

I consider whether to tell her about the pub garden. How I came out of the pub with a belly full of veggie lasagne and red wine, dug out Olive and wrote down what I thought. I actually remember writing it down, which is rare because usually Olive just shows me rows of words and random phrases but this I recall noting, it has a thin string of memory attached.

‘Do you?’ I say instead.

‘I said that!’


‘When we came out of that pub, it’s what I said, coming out!’

Oh. The woman had been with us on the pub lunch. I remember that now.

‘I said that!’ She’s hitting the page again.

Had she said it? I don’t remember.  But there’s no reason to believe she’s making it up, normally she’s very nice. Not today though.

‘We went to the pub in January. You, me and her!’ She points at another woman who looks terrified.

I recall the lunch with them in January. Olive was with me, skulking in my bag. A writer’s lunch in a pub,  the pub with a garden that smelled of nothing.

‘You stole it!’

That’s a bit strong. Still, I start to blush. ‘I can’t remember.’ I’m lying now. The memory is creeping back, readjusting itself in my mind, pushing its way to the front. I’m in the pub garden again and it smells of damp, the bare trees like barcodes against a white-grey sky and I hear the woman’s voice saying “The thing is about winter, it smells of nothing.”

I look down on the printed page of my chapter.

“The thing is about winter, it smells of nothing”.

Oh. My. God.

I brazen it out, but she’s smarting. I feel like a plagiarist, a thief. But I can’t be. Can I? You an’t copyright an idea, a handful of throwaway words. Can you?

‘I’m not going to say anything in front of you anymore.’

I’ve really pissed her off, but can I do? Olive would be bare and blank if I ignore everything round me.  What do I write about if I can’t squirrel way words? This has never happened to me before, ever. I think if there was some sort of writer’s disciplinary tribunal she’d have Olive and I in the dock.

The writing group fizzles out soon afterwards and I’m sad in a way, but glad for it. Thief, thief, rings in my ears when I think of this woman now. Word thief, ideas thief. The frisson of fear and shame.

Still, here I am, writing an article about it.

Olive, my notebook. I will blame her.



8 thoughts on “The Plagiarist

  1. I absolutely love this post Cath. Brilliant. But wow. You’re right. Odd. You cant copyright what comes out of your mouth. Unless she’s saying to you – I’m going to write a story about winter smelling of nothing – then that’s different. Just taking a throwaway phrase is how writing works. It’s what your group should be advocating. She should be proud she’d said something that prompted a story. Keep Olive alive. Especially around her! 🙂

  2. I don’t think this is plagiarism in any way. Imagine if she wasn’t a writer and she’d said ‘winter smells of nothing’ and you’d used it, or if she was a child and had said it. I think you can use all the things you hear other people say. I think you can use the things you read, although this is a finer lin. Better in that instance to use the idea, the thought, and make it your own.
    It’s a really interesting post, which does raise issues and decisions.

    1. Thanks, Claire. It was a throwaway comment and so usable, I think. (maybe not that throwaway, the woman remembered saying it very clearly!)

  3. If she doesn’t know by now that writers listen to people, watch people, pick up ideas, use those ideas…then she’s going to be very surprised when someone turns on her and accuses her.

    Plagiarism is about stealing work, obviously or subtly. It’s not about using a common, everyday conversation: ripping it out of one context and using it in another. Now if she had written a story, and you had been struck by the truth of that statement in the story, and decided you could write her story better than she could, using the phrase in the same way…that would be plagiarism. But that’s not what you did.

    To a writer, everything is material. Other people are material. Other *writers* are material. Every word, every gesture, every tone of voice, every incident…is material. My writer friends have used things I said. I’ve used things they said–in completely different ways, different contexts, to be sure, because I know (as I know my words have been used) that they will notice them when I, or another writer, uses theirs. Same with non-writer friends (and strangers overheard in cafes, stores, subways…) “Winter has no smell” is a comment anyone might have made–and I would be dozens of people have made. “I said that first” isn’t the same thing as “I wrote that in the story I let you read and now you’ve copied the whole idea…” Had she said, “Winter has no smell…I’ve been working on this story/essay/poem in which the smells of various seasons are integral to the plot/theme/whatever, and winter’s lack of smell anchors the whole thing,” you probably would not have chosen that as a phrase to pick up. You would have heard it in the context of a work in progress, and been more likely to consider it ‘hers.’

    Should something similar happen again (I know you hope it won’t but…writer…material) it’s best to be honest and to ask the other person “Had you written about that? Were you planning to? I wish you’d told me at the time.” Because otherwise it’s not plagiarism or nobody could say “Good morning, how are you?” without being a plagiarist. Conversation isn’t copyrighted.

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