The Plagiarist

by Thomas McColl

I was interviewed after winning first prize in the poetry contest, and when the organisers asked me what advice I’d give to aspiring writers, I replied: “Be imaginative and be yourself”.

I said the first thing that came into my head, and now I wish I hadn’t, for though the words are at least my own, they’ll someday soon come back to haunt me – and all because of someone else’s words.

Still, the poem that won is absolutely wonderful, even if I say so myself (and, believe me, that requires some gall on my part). And I really have used my imagination – though only to imagine I’m actually a writer.

I wish I could write the poem that won. It bears my name, but someone else wrote it (apart from a couple of words I changed): a well-known poet, as it happens.

He doesn’t know yet that he’s made this noble gesture: ghost-writing a poem for someone who’s virtually unknown, and thereby giving a less fortunate writer – in this case, one who’s useless at writing – the chance to taste some literary success.

If nothing else, I deserve something, at least, for effort: The amount of times I’ve tried to write a poem, but it just doesn’t come to me. Looking out my window right now, for instance, I see a garden, a tree, a cat on a fence, some clothes on a washing line, the sky, clouds and a plane, in the distance, flying: So many different things, but not one metaphor amongst them.

It’s funny: I love reading poetry – especially out loud – so you’d think I’d be able to write the stuff, but it doesn’t always follow.

For me, being a writer has always been a fantasy, but now that fantasy has begun to spill over into real life just a little too much: I certainly never expected to do so well – my average, so far, has been Highly Commended – but the organisers all agreed the poem was one of the best they’d ever read. They were absolutely gushing in their praise, and I can’t express how good that felt, except to say it’s wonderful to receive such adulation, and I can see why writers endure all that loneliness and uncertainty to get it.

Not that I’d be able to endure that myself, however: To be honest, I’m not someone who enjoys his own company much – though, granted, I’ll probably enjoy it even less when I’m rumbled…

…and I really do think that this time I will be, for I broke the plagiarists’ golden rule: Never steal from a writer who’s widely read.

It has to be said – in my defence – that I only began my search for a poem one day before the competition deadline and, in my rush, got sloppy. I don’t think people understand what it’s like for someone like me, that there’s actually a lot of hard work involved in trying to find the right poem to steal – a good but obscure one by a writer who’s got a reputation but isn’t yet mainstream. Usually, it means a few visits to the Southbank Centre – holed up in the Poetry Library’s reference section – but, this time round, I ended up in Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and, in less than an hour, had settled on a poem by a writer who, it transpires, is a little too celebrated for comfort, and though I clearly, in one sense, made the perfect choice, it also means I’ve potentially set myself up for a spectacular fall.

I keep checking my inbox: Another email from the organisers, but instead of expressing disgust and outrage, they’ve simply asked if I’m free on the 4th to do a special reading of my winning poem – at the town hall, no less, in front of the local mayor. I wonder if the writer who really wrote the poem is on YouTube. If he is, I’ll have to study how he reads his work.

In any event, I’ll go. Let’s face it: I may as well milk it while I can – till they find out I’m a fraud.

I don’t know what I’ll say when I’m outed – though then it’s going to be words of my own I’ll have to find (unless, of course, I plagiarise a previously outed plagiarist’s excuses – after all, they’re always the same: “I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising the work of another writer” “I regret my terrible mistake” “I hope the writer whose poem I inadvertently used will accept my sincere apology”).

But if I’m not outed, I’ll probably do it again. It’s not like the fear of being discovered has stopped me before, and though it’s thieving, yes, it’s not doing anyone any real harm.

How can I put it? I’m just someone who likes to try on other people’s weaved-together words. I wear their imaginations like warm coats, and I like the feeling it gives me.

There. Those are my own words. Really, they are. And they could only have been thought up as a result of stealing someone else’s words.

In fact, this story is all my own words. It’s my story. Don’t believe whoever it is has stolen this piece, and is right now trying to pass it off as one of their own.


Thomas McColl

The Plagiarist by Thomas McColl first appeared in Issue 2 of Bare Fiction Magazine (April 2014).

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