I'm Done Worrying about "Self-Plagiarism"
and other thoughts about diachronic writing
This is a continuation of an earlier post, about trying to find a way to write “diachronically” about my recent trip to Lviv. (By “diachronic” I mean something like: what if we don’t try to erase, from a given text, the fact that a writer was changed by/ during the act of writing? What if we don’t think of that erasure as a goal of good writing, or good editing?)
I was really excited by the subsequent conversation in the comments section with Jessica Nordell (whose Substack really does feel to me like an exciting diachronic expansion of her first book). Jess was saying that the act of writing her first book made her into a different person, who thought different things from the person who wrote the intro / first chapters—which could even have been rewritten as the “new person,” if that person (who was still subject to Jess’s schedule constraints) had had time.
This reminded me of a writer I met last year at Art OMI, Miluska Benevides, who was working on a book of interconnected short stories set in a mining camp in Peru, written from different perspectives—e.g. the owners, investors, miners, indigenous people, animals, plants, minerals, etc.. I remember Miluska talking about a plan to publish the story cycle with some stories left blank, and reissuing it every few years, with more of it filled in—I remembered her saying something like, “I'm not ready right now to write in the consciousness of a mineral, but by the time I'm 50, maybe I can do it.”
This made me think about how writing conventions could change on a formal level to accommodate more diachronicity.
EB: I was thinking how exciting it would be to be able to acknowledge from the beginning that you were expecting to LEARN MORE STUFF—by contrast with the "I had an epiphany and now I'm done” formal template, which feels like a holdover from Christian texts where you graduate from time-bound narrative into atemporal all-knowingness, like Dante and Augustine??
JN: I'm fascinated by the connection between Christian epiphanic texts and the desire to erase the (human!) process of learning. And I wonder if this narrative model of "I had an epiphany and now I'm done" is part of why cancel culture exists, and why the #MeToo movement stalled: we live in a world where we're either right or wrong, evolved or barbaric, enlightened or embarrassing cookie heads, rather than on a continuum of learning. There doesn't seem to be a way to publicly evolve, or even just move a little further along the continuum.
This made me think a LOT of things… so that’s what the rest of the post is about.
(1) The one-and-done epiphany mode of structuring prose has been really frustrating to me over the past ten years, during which I have experienced a series of cumulative epiphanies, each building off the others, with a certain amount of overlap and forgetting. It’s really hard to write about such experiences, which have no “before” and “after,” within the available forms.
At first I thought, “Well, all representation involves some deception or editing; why wouldn’t you leave out, as a courtesy, all the times you forget and then remember? Isn’t some trickery necessary to transform nonlinear thought into a linear narrative?” But now I think it’s a matter of degrees. If some detours in thought can be smoothed out, it may be important to leave some of them in. Forgetting isn’t just an incidental occurrence, a distraction, to be excised from the final draft of the story of learning. Sometimes, it’s an inherent part of learning itself.
(2) In 2021, when I was interviewing Céline Sciamma, the conversation kept coming back to something she called “the Scam.” A line from my notes: “The Scam is many-layered.” When you realize something (e.g. about yourself), the natural result is that you realize other things (e.g. about others). I’m starting to see the device of the singular epiphany as a weapon in the arsenal of the Status Quo. It directs us to exceptionalist narratives instead of intersectional ones, and keeps us from making the bigger realizations.
(3) When I was getting started as a writer, I remember fantasizing about publication as a magical finish-line that would someday free me from the activity of (always, endlessly) writing and rewriting. How wonderful it would be, to officially finish a text and be free (obliged?) to move on to something else.
But if publication marks the completion of a piece of writing, it also marks its birth—its entry into the world as an object with material reality. The text starts having its own adventures, and dictating your further fate and movements. In a way, that’s the beginning of the real story, not the end. What if there were formal conventions for how to tell that story—other than tacking on a “foreword to the Xth edition” every few years?
(4) In 1605, at age 57, Cervantes (a disabled veteran of the Spanish Armada) published Don Quixote—about a guy in his 50s who decides to live like a chivalric knight. It was hugely successful, and made Cervantes a celebrity. In 1614, a Cervantes hater published a fake sequel—motivating Cervantes to write a sequel of his own. In it Quixote finds out that someone wrote a fake sequel about him, and has to go through the world correcting it. If you buy a copy of Don Quixote now, it consists of both the first book and the sequel; they’re considered the same book, even though they were published ten years apart. In a way, the European novel tradition started with a diachronic text.
(5) The more I think about it, the more I realize that the prohibition against returning to published work has been a burden to me for years. I keep wanting to return to things I’ve written, in light of having written them, and coming against the discouraging idea / concept of “self-plagiarism.” The Jonah Lehrer scandal in 2012—how badly it made me about returning to themes in my writing (which I do all the time, because I’m always thinking about the same things)!
(6) Why am I always thinking about the same things? Why can’t I think about other things? They say that the fox thinks many things, but the hedgehog just thinks one big thing. I guess I must be a hedgehog, thinking the same thing over and over again. But if the thing I’m thinking about is many-layered, and contains many other things, am I also a fox? Might the fox-hedgehog binary be another weapon of the Status Quo?
Hey AI, can you generate a picture of an 80% hedgehog, 20% fox—something I can stand behind and believe in?
(7) Although I do concede the existence of a form of antisocial behavior that may meaningfully be called “self-plagiarism”—like, deliberately copy-pasting your own earlier published work without flagging the quotes, and republishing as a column in a news publication—I would urge people who are doing more personal forms of writing to not let the existence of such terms have a “chilling effect” on their propensity to revisit and reengage with their own work over time.
This is all to say that I feel like I had a breakthrough yesterday in writing about Lviv—because even after I had the idea about writing diachronically, I’d been having a lot of trouble implementing it/ getting started, and the main block was the start-up cost of having to either summarize or ignore so much that I’ve already written about.
I’m not going to go into detail about the “solution,” in case it doesn’t end up working… but I’m very excited about trying it out, and excited to report back, which I plan to do in two weeks—because these issues are too big for me to handle on a weekly basis. In the meantime, paid subscribers can find some bonus thoughts about diachronic writing and the “author function,” after the paywall.
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