How Not to Write

11. How Not to Create

by Steve Rosse

I like to read guidebooks to Thailand. I’ve contributed to a couple of them, and it’s a tricky assignment. You’ve got to be up to the minute in a publication which won’t go to press for as long as a year. You’ve got to be able to see the future.

I also like it when non-native English speakers try to write in English. Conrad and Nabokov are two of my favorite writers.

So when I found a guidebook to Thailand written by somebody struggling with the frustrating complexity that is English, I was charmed. Just look at this heartfelt declaration: “Couple of days after my arrival in Bangkok I thought, what really am I doing here? The smog, the smell, the unrelenting heat, the incredibly poor to horribly deformed, the corruption.”

You can just hear the guy’s accent, can’t you? It’s a warm voice, mellow, Old World. He was trying to express something honest, and despite the sentence with six subjects but no object or verb, he was getting his idea across.

Then I came across this sentence: “Realizing the importance of tourism, the Thai government came up with an excellent idea of setting up a special police division to help tourists in distress.”

Uh-oh. Suddenly the grammar is correct and all the Old World charm is gone. It’s as clear as listening to Humphrey Bogart converse with Peter Lorre in “Casablanca.” Two completely different voices, one a native speaker of English, the other not.

Of course I Googled that phrase and found that it, and the two paragraphs of text that followed it, had been stolen from a popular blog. Taking random bites of other grammatically correct phrases from the book proved that great heaping whacks of words had been stolen from that same, very well known, Web site. 

The thief stole from such an obvious source, and his thefts stood out from the rest of his prose so blatantly, that he had to know he’d be caught. Did he think the people he stole from would just accept what he’d done? When did we get so casual about stealing each other’s ideas? When did creativity lose its value? I weep for mankind.

Happily, Amazon has since removed that guidebook from their catalogue, but other on-line book sellers have not, and we have to remember that some on-demand publisher was happy enough to take this “author’s” money and publish the stolen pages under his name.

This sort of thing goes on all the time these days. There used to be a man who contributed to a lot of Thailand blogs, chat rooms and forums. For all I know he’s still doing it; I quit reading those things a while ago. But he was famous for stealing whole articles and posting them as his own. When confronted with the sleaziness of this act, his response was: “I contribute to lots of places under lots of names. For all I know, maybe I really did write this and have forgotten. So what’s it matter?”

It seems like the only place people exercise creativity any more is in the selection of their on-line avatars. But unless your Momma really did name you Shanghai Charley what purpose does it serve to post under such a name? Are these people ashamed of what they’ve written? Are they afraid of stalkers? (I doubt that old men living in Thailand are afraid of stalkers.) Are we so timid now that we can only express ourselves through the denial of our identities?

We create art because it brings us joy. The act of creation sparks elation. We feel a sense of achievement when we create art that is unlike the sense of achievement we get from any other endeavor. (And yes, with your indulgence I’m including guide books in “art.”) Every human being has an urge for personal expression; that’s why children scribble on the walls with crayons. Humans created art before they created science or medicine. But there’s no personal expression in cutting and pasting somebody else’s words under your name.

And when you steal you’re a thief, whether you steal money or words.

 

Eastlit Note on How Not to Create:

How Not to Create is the eleventh article in the series. Previous articles in the series are:

How Not to Market Yourself

How Not to Use Style

How Not to Use Big Words

How Not to Begin

How Not to Tell a Story

How Not to Take Criticism

How Not to Self Publish

How Not to Care

How Not to Convince Me

How Not to Read

Steve Rosse is a former columnist for The Nation newspaper in Bangkok.  His books are available on Amazon.com

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