My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)

By Dorothy Bryant
Wednesday August 24, 2011 - 03:59:00 PM

“Overachievers don’t generally become writers because the skill set is so different.”

Whitney Otto, NY Times Book Review 5/12/06, on a highly-publicized case of a ‘chick lit’ novel plagiarized by a Harvard student. 

The first question people asked was how someone smart enough to get into Harvard could be stupid enough to jeopardize her future by plagiarizing formulaic genre fiction. The next question was, why didn’t the Harvard girl write a book of her own—which elicited Whitney Otto’s comment about different “skill sets.” 

During my first twenty-odd years I worked on the “overachiever’s” skill set. I did the assigned reading and writing, learned to follow rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I sorted out the important points to know for a test and learned to write papers giving back facts and opinions my teachers considered central. My efforts led to a teaching credential and a job (which, in my social/economic class, was “overachieving.”) 

And I loved teaching—until I was bitten by the writing bug, for which I had to learn a new, quite different skill set. 

1. I could not write true, non-formula fiction by assignment or even by my own choice. My “assigned” subject tickled like an elusive flea, or fell on my head like a truck-load of seeds to be sorted out—like those tasks set for girls by witches in fairy tales 

2. I sorted and resorted, took notes and made outlines, wrote chapters, then threw them all out and started again, slowly learning that the only path to the Right Way led through thickets of wrong ways. In other words, I could recognize and eliminate errors only by making them, then seeing the true path clearly—maybe. 

3. Seeking advice was useless. I was on my own, until I had gone through this process over and over again, until I despaired, ready to abandon the project. THEN, if I got lucky, the right, rare person might read the aborted manuscript and locate the spot where something fixable would set me on the path to the right rewrite. 

Does this sound like a skill set? It feels more like spelunking without a light: sinking blindly through the dark, narrow caves of my unconscious, until I reach a level where—maybe—I pick up something I know, but never knew I know. 

And the trouble is—the gem that I pick up and carry to the surface, and spend a couple of years polishing, might turn out not to be a precious stone, after all. 

In fact, that’s what usually happens. And I just have start all over again.