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I’ve been asked to take part in a project called The Knox Writers’ House.  At this point I don’t know much about the project, only that  it’s associated with my alma mater, Knox College, and that I’ll be interviewed then recorded as I read two selections – something I wrote and something by a writer who inspired me. Choosing my own work was easy. I decided on “What Love Is,” a story about childhood sweethearts whose love ends in disaster. It’s the right length and reads well  out loud. The other choice was harder. So many writers have inspired me at different times in my life.

My first idea was to read the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The novel shocked some people when it was published in 1955 because its hero is an unapologetic paedophile. But any literate person knows we’re not talking about porno. The tale of Humbert Humbert’s love for thirteen-year-old Lolita is a tragi-comedy written in elegant prose, lyrical and satiric, razor-sharp in its intelligence. It begins, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Lolita is the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but I also love it for personal reasons. Two courses shy of graduating, I left Knox and moved to Chicago, where I moved in with a friend and looked for a job. I was deeply depressed and drinking a pint of vodka every day. Unsurprisingly, the only job I found was waiting tables at a seedy restaurant, the sort of place where I wouldn’t dream of eating now.  I was fired after a week or two. Not that I cared. Now I had more time to go out drinking. Remembering some of the crazy things that happened then, I feel like I’m channelling someone’s else’s nightmares. During the day I slept and watched TV. Only friendship kept my roommate from kicking my ass out.

One day I got sick of soap operas and picked up a book. It happened to be Lolita. I was awed. I remembered something I’d forgotten – that a writer creates meaning from the chaos of experience, and I knew chaos would swallow me unless I escaped. A few days later I took a train back  to Galesburg and moved in with Joe Heumann, now my husband. I forgot to warn Joe I was coming, but that’s another story.

I owe my life to Lolita, but in the end I decided to read “The Grave” by Katherine Ann Porter instead. For one thing, it’s brief. I can read the whole thing, not just a chapter. For another, it’s an unforgettable story with a kick-ass opening sentence: “The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.” Right away the reader knows that some things don’t stay buried. But most of all, I couldn’t have written “What Love Is” without having read “The Grave.” Porter showed me how a story can span decades in a few pages and that buried memories are the most haunting.

I feel incredibly honored by the invitation to help with this project and look forward to telling you more about The Knox Writers’ House. Meanwhile, you can find “The Grave” in The Virginia Quarterly Review and “What Love Is” in The Scream Online.

My Face in the Mirror

Exam week looms. I have more than sixty research essays to read and mark. They must be finished in time to return at final exams. Grading research essays requires additional work because I require photocopies or printouts of written sources, and I check to make sure students are citing correctly. The workload is daunting enough that I thought about skipping this week’s post, but then something happened.

The second essay I read contained plagiarism. This was not a case of the writer forgetting to put quotation marks around language taken from somewhere else. The plagiarized sources were not on her works cited page, nor would they have any place there. Both came from Web sites that sell essays to students. Typically, samples of the proffered essays are shown. My student copied and pasted two of these samples, one for her introduction and one for her conclusion.

Other instructors will understand how I recognized the plagiarism. Every writer has a voice. Part of it consists of the writer’s facility with language, vocabulary, and sentence construction. When a marginal student suddenly uses polysyllabic words, creates complex sentences, and strings together three or four cogent thoughts, I get suspicious.

My student received a zero on the research essay, which counts for twenty percent of her total grade. As a result, it has become impossible for her to pass English 1002. It will cost her considerable time and money to retake the course. No doubt some people think I’m being harsh. Only two passages, after all. Only fifteen percent of the essay. But students take the risk of plagiarizing because they count on leniency if they happen to be caught. Many of us exceed the speed limit on the highway figuring the cop will let us go with a warning, and even if we get a ticket, paying it isn’t a crushing financial hardship. I sometimes drive too fast. I’ll no doubt complain when the cop pulls me over, but I’ll deserve the ticket.

As seasoned criminals put it: If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

In this situation I become the cop. I dislike the role – I’m a writer, damn it – but since I have to play the cop, I get to make the call about whether to issue a warning or impose a penalty. A zero for the assignment is actually the mildest penalty and the one I typically impose the first time someone plagiarizes. This student deserves it for stealing other people’s writing – even if it is for sale and therefore an invitation to plagiarism.

Photo by Cheryl Casey


In
my heart I keep hoping each new piece of technology will be the spark that sets my writing on fire. I wasn’t always this way. Once I detested the term “word processing,” which seemed to imply that the act of writing was like pulverizing fruit in a blender. My techno-lust began the day Joe brought home a K-Pro he’d borrowed from a friend. Long extinct now, the K-Pro was a clunky box with an ugly little screen, no hard drive and a tiny fraction of the memory of the simplest electronic device today.”Just try it,” Joe said.

From that first day, the K-Pro set me free. My writing became more fluid. I loved being able to move words around without inking corrections on a page or starting over with a blank sheet of paper. Pen and typewriter had shackled me, made me reluctant to write anything down until I felt sure of it. With a word processor I could change sentences, shuffle paragraphs, and rework passages by pressing a couple of keys.

I imagined being able to write with the quickness and suppleness of thought. Impossible, I knew. But maybe, with the right device, I could come close.

The K-Pro was succeeded by a Compaq that I named Lloyd. I loved Lloyd. I spoke to him as though he was a person. But eventually he became obsolete, and with sorrow I replaced him with a custom-made Ares. It had a hard drive and a huge screen. Thirteen inches!

The Ares cost $2000. In fact, every computer I’ve bought has cost around that much, because I always want upgrades – a more powerful motherboard, a bigger hard drive, more RAM. My techno-delusion began to cast a disturbingly sexual shadow that sometimes obscured the reason for the computer.

“You use it to write,” Joe reminded me. “You don’t need all that shit.”

But apparently I did. 

Each new computer became smaller and faster but not radically different from its predecessor. Then I bought an iPad – a computer almost as light as a notebook of lined paper, with a screen like silk beneath my fingertips. We were almost one, my iPad and I.

Almost.

My clumsy, imprecise fingers fumbled over its virtual keyboard, hunting and pecking, making a typo every other word. So I bought an Apple wireless keyboard. Thin and elegant, primed to couple with my iPad, it moves me closer than ever to the magical ideal – writing as fluid and spontaneous as thought.

With my iPad and wireless keyboard my writing can catch fire wherever I go. All I have to do is provide the fuel. No technological miracle can do that for me. Not yet, anyway.