I don't think it's any kind of secret that I haven't been having an easy time writing lately. Actually, it's been hell. Everything I put down on paper sounds ridiculous, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It could be that I'm out of practice. When I took up waitressing again this past summer, my life sort of revolved around the diner. It sucked both my time and will to write straight out of me. All the lofty goals I'd set down for the summer--finish this story! finish that story! put together manuscript!--dried up, scattered, got lost along the way.
It could also be that I'm happy. I hate to even say out loud because it gives the impression that to be a good writer a person has to be sad, depressed, all-the-time glum, and that's just not true. I've written well when happy, and I've written well when sad. But it's just that most of the writing I did during grad school--most of my thesis, for example--was written when I was in a bad and ugly place, when I was face down on my desk, crying over this or that thing the Wily Republican had done, hadn't done, had said, or hadn't said. And now, with the most recent developments in my life (a nice boy, a good job, a wisecracking group of students, a heap of achieved goals) have left me a little stunned, a little wide-eyed and blinking in disbelief. I don't know if I understand how to be this new girl with this new life just yet. I'm on unsteady legs here, but I'm learning.
It could also be that I'm busy. After all, I am teaching five classes--some of them brand-new to me--and there isn't a familiar textbook in sight. I'm starting from scratch. I don't mind starting from scratch, but doing so takes time and effort. My writing has sort of been pushed aside in favor of not drowning in backlogged work.
So, whatever it is--and it's probably a combination of all those things--continues, and I have been struggling to write things that don't sound like nails on a chalkboard. Most of the time I end up so frustrated by the things I write that I have to pick up notebooks or pads of sticky notes and throw them across the room just to hear the satisfying thwock of them falling to the ground.
And this probably accounts for why I had such a frustrating conversation with one of my composition students last week. The circumstances were these: this student had turned in a paper that was lifted directly from the internet. Word for word. He'd just placed his name on it and handed it in. Of course I'd realized this the moment I read the first line. Of course I did. The writing was crisp and, well, perfect. It had the sheen and polish of textbook-worthy prose. And so I googled, and there it was.
When I found it, I silently fumed the way I always do when I catch a plagiarizer. I thought about how nice it must be for him to have such a casual relationship with language and writing that he could care less if he borrowed someone else's words. It must be nice for him not to care about turning in something good, something beautiful, something worth reading.
When he showed up the next week to retrieve his paper, I told him I'd left it in my office. I told him he needed to follow me there to get it. He did. He slumped in the chair by my desk and blew out a long, bored breath.
"We need to talk about your paper," I said.
"How come?" he asked.
"You know why," I said. I always like to give students the chance to come clean about their cheating. For some reason, I'd respect them more if they threw up their hands and said, You know what? You caught me. Sorry about that. But most of them don't do that. They go in the exact opposite direction: they lie, lie, lie. The lies stack up on the original lie--their plagiarized paper--until they've constructed a shaky foundation of not-quite-truths they hope will stick.
"You mean how bad it was written?" the student asked me. "I know, I know. I'm a real bad writer."
I sighed. I wouldn't be salvaging even the smallest nip of respect for this student, that much was evident. "No, actually. See, the paper was nicely constructed. Really well written."
"Wow," the student said. A smile broke across his face.
"And that's how I knew something was wrong," I said. The speed with which that smile fell off his face was impressive. "I've read your writing," I continued. "I know what types of mistakes you make and how often you make them. When I read this and found no mistakes, I knew something was up."
"Well, it's all mine," the student said. "Every last word."
I handed him the paper. I had attached a print-off of the paper I'd found on the web. "Then how do you explain this?" I asked.
The student looked down at the paper for a good long time, and I didn't say anything. When I first started doing this--teaching, rooting out plagiarizers--I had tried to save students from this embarrassing moment, tried to talk for them, but a girl can only do that so many times without getting angry. I sat back in my chair and waited for him to get his next lie straight.
"Oh, that," he said.
"Yeah," I said. "That."
"Didn't I cite this?" he asked.
I told him it didn't matter if he'd cited or not (and he hadn't) because he'd taken the whole thing, word for word, and transferred it to his paper. That, I said, was not kosher. After all, how was that writing? How did that seem like learning?
"You mean I can't do that?" he asked. He opened his eyes wide, like some sort of cartoon character who was having the life squeezed out of him, and gave the best performance he could. "I mean, like, you can't borrow someone else's words and put them in your paper?"
"You can't take a whole paper that's not yours, erase the author's name, and put your name in its place," I said. "And I know you know that."
"No," he said, shaking his head, his eyes still bugging clear out of his head. "I didn't know you couldn't do that. I swear it. I've been doing it all my life. Wow." He kept shaking his head. "I mean, wow. I'm so glad you just taught me it's wrong because I've literally been doing that forever. My friend and I were going to turn in our final papers like that for another class. I'm so glad you caught me before I did that."
Oh, oh, oh. I wanted to yell or to tell him to get the hell out of my office, but I didn't. I took a deep breath--deeper than any breath I've taken before--and I looked out my window, up at the night sky and the stars that were shining above the college's brick buildings. I let the silence sit between us. It made me feel grounded. I imagine it made him feel uncomfortable.
"So, like, am I going to fail?" my student asked.
"College policy states any plagiarized assignments will receive an F," I said. "So, yeah, you failed this paper."
"Am I going to fail the class?" he asked.
"I guess that depends on what you decide to do with the rest of the class," I said.
He looked glum. "Well, I guess you should just fail me then," he said. "Go ahead. I mean, just flunk me for the whole class. This whole thing is a big waste of time for me."
I stared at him. I stared hard. "Excuse me?" I asked. "My class is a waste of time?"
He tried to back his statement up, but that didn't quite work. "Well, no, that's not what I mean," he said. "I mean college in general. College is the waste of time. The whole thing. I don't really need to be here."
"Not really," he said. He shrugged. "I'm just in here to waste time. It was either this or get a job, and I don't really want to get a job right now. So you can flunk me."
"Well, you are definitely getting an F for this assignment," I said.
He looked a little sheepish. "And you might as well hand back that paper I just turned in today," he said. He slanted a half-grin my way. "You know..." he said and shrugged again.
"You stole that, too?" I asked.
"Parts of it, yeah," he said. "But like I said--I didn't know that was something you weren't supposed to do."
After I got home from school that night, I went straight into the kitchen and got down the bottle of Bella Rosa I had sitting on top of my fridge. I poured myself a big, big glass. I didn't know it yet, but later I would try to write, try to sit down and turn a phrase--just one, just one good phrase--and nothing would come. Not a single thing. I would sit there in the dark, my face lit by the blank computer screen, and nothing would happen. But I would still sit there all night. I would still try. I would still put my fingers to the keyboard with the best of intentions.