Sunday, March 02, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 3-8-08
Jeff Gill

No Doubt Who Wrote This

Larry Fugate and I share at least this one quality – our writing is not likely to be confused for each others’ or much of anyone else’s.

For those of you who enjoy our commentary and columnizing, thanks for your patronage! In the newspaper business, from the days of “Benj. Franklin, printer” to the present internet-ified era, we’ve never been quite sure if you want the ads and put up with the content, or want a heaping helping of fresh, informative text and sift through the ads to find it.

A healthy balance is probably what we all benefit from, advertisers not the least.

I’ve written for publications in a wide variety of venues, and worked alongside quite a few journalists, freelance writers, and others who make part or all of their living in the salt mines of prose construction.

Some of us write better than others, a few write easily, while not a few are just prolific. Some of us write better on some days than others, others can handle deadlines while they leave many distraught -- but we all know that writing creatively when the Muse is not in residence can be worse than shoveling sand.

Writing columns is a uniquely rewarding task, but I’ve watched a number of folks over the years dive into the work with enthusiasm, and then suddenly hit a wall a few weeks or months in. They realize “I have no good ideas today, and not only do I need to come up with one, but I’ll have to next week, and the week after that, and . . .”

And they quit. No shame in that – like knitting or welding, it isn’t for everyone. Especially if it isn’t a required task for your job, though clergy know this sort of dilemma when it comes to preaching (plus, for many, a regular newsletter column). Clergy, and writers who have to keep writing columns or personal essays or what have you for their work, learn how to deal with “a season of dryness” and push through, or they find a new field of work.

When you’re writing columns for no pay, no job requirement, and no reason other than to see your name in print, you usually can just wait for lightning to strike. Which is what makes the tale of Tim Goeglein so odd.

Mr. Goeglein was personally hired by Karl Rove to work in the White House Office of Public Liason, co-ordinating Bush administration initiatives with faith-based and religious conservative groups. He’s from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and while he’s been in Washington, D.C. he’s semi-regularly sent “guest columns” on a variety of subjects back to his hometown paper. The frequency of them has increased the last few months, no doubt to prepare the way for a return home to run for elected office in Indiana.

This is where I feel both sad and angry. There’s a blog written by a former columnist in Fort Wayne, who now lives in Detroit, called, and I often comment there myself, having been referred to Nancy’s work by a friend years ago. Nancy and others of us were throwing comments around in the wake of William F. Buckley’s death last week, and I looked right away to see what Tim Goeglein had written, since – to be perfectly candid – his writing style was so odd as to make us all enjoy making fun of it.

Nancy looked further the next evening, and read, or felt a bit more oddness than usual, and did a simple Google-check of a phrase.

Between the end of that sentence and a week later is the revelation that the fellow had stolen vast swaths of other people’s writing, in (as of this writing) 20 of his last 38 columns, in some cases almost the whole length of the piece.

He even plagiarized the pope.

And you can imagine that, once this was all out and started to echo around the internet, Tim Goeglein was humiliated and finally turned in his quickly accepted resignation. I’m thinking running for governor is out, too.

Plagiarism is paradoxically easier to catch, and more common today, than perhaps at any point in history. Ask a teacher in high school or college, let alone an editor, how they feel about plagiarism. For that reason alone, as a chastening example, the job loss seems fair. Crooks on “Law & Order” don’t seem to understand that cops can pull cell phone records, and writers should know that Google goes both ways.

I’ve often come to the end of a column thinking “I wish I wrote that better.” Trust me when I say that worry has never caused me to then think “so, let’s see who else said it better, and print that as my words.” Why a White House official would do so may be the story that is yet to be told.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he doesn’t much like any form of theft, including plagiarism. Tell your original story to him at

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