Catch Yourself If You Can

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Some years ago, the literary world was shocked when a recipient of the annual Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Brad Vice, was accused of plagiarizing in his winning collection, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train.

The story of Vice’s rise and fall, which echoes the life of charming con artist and swindler, Frank Abagnale (Catch Me if You Can), is intriguing. Why would a bright and talented writer take this risk? In his article for New York Press, “A Charming Plagiarist,” Robert Clark Young deplored Vice’s history of plagiarism, starting with his dissertation and continuing through stories published in various literary magazines before receiving the award (later rescinded).

As a young writer Vice started attending the Sewanee Writer’s Conference where, according to Young, “many of the South’s leading writers will… decide which of the conference’s attendees should be considered for future scholarships to the conference, which writers should receive letters of recommendation to graduate programs, which hot new novelists should receive blurbs, which conference attendees should be nominated for inclusion in New Stories From the South, and which book-length manuscripts might make good candidates for next year’s Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction.”

Young’s analysis is probably the best clue to Vice’s personality style as described in the Enneagram, a drive to look good at any expense: “A few minutes of Googling Vice’s name next to the name of virtually any published author who’s ever eaten barbecue at Sewanee will call up pit stop after pit stop of Vice’s campaign to become the best-adored, best-appreciated and best-deserving young fiction writer in the history of Southern letters.” We can better understand how Vice could deny the potential risks of his image-making, knowing this personality’s drive to success is accompanied by denying any possibility of failure.

Now the plot thickens. Pursuing the likelihood that Vice did plagiarize, I searched for more information about Robert Clark Young, the author of the above-mentioned exposé. The Atlantic Monthly’s C. Michael Curtis, who edited and published the story by Vice which Young claimed proved an additional case of plagiarism, refuted Young’s claim. “Commentators mentioned that Young had previously had a run-in with Hannah and Vice at the Sewanee Conference and suggested that his article about Vice was possibly an attempt at revenge.”

Whoa! This is interesting. Did Young have an axe to grind? What clues do we have about his own personality style? Recurring themes in Young’s writing “include the relation between alcoholism, the abuse of power, and institutional dysfunction in American life.” Further, “when not writing, Young has been active in the anti-war movement and was arrested twice in 2003 for nonviolent protest of the Iraq War.” Ready to draw attention to the misuse of power by the Sewanee literary elite? If so, Young is showing the high side of personality style six, overcoming his fear of powerlessness by challenging others to be accountable for their actions.

As writers, we have the important task of being mindful that we don’t play out our own outmoded personality patterns. When we identify and learn from our automatic responses and release their hold on us, we can consciously choose who we want to be in the world.

Reading about Vice led me to ask how true I’ve been to myself in my own writing. Inspired by a friend who’d published almost 30 short stories and averaged 15 rejections for each acceptance, I engaged for several years in the business of getting published. I created a master list, cross-referencing journals with poems or stories and color-coding acceptances, rejections, and multiple submissions; bookmarked web pages with contributor’s guidelines; and started noting the type of writing various magazines seemed to prefer. Then one day I caught myself writing in a style I thought a particular magazine might accept.

My own personality style is the Enneagram nine, on the down side a “good girl” persona that tends to merge with others’ wishes and forget her own agenda. I had too easily slipped into what I thought other people wanted. Realizing the need to absent myself from that habitual temptation, I deleted all my Internet bookmarks for literary magazines, threw out my submissions list, and did some soul-searching about my own voice — who I wanted to be as a writer. My most difficult task has been to say what I want to say and let go of worrying, “What will the neighbors think?”

Follow this link to a quick overview of nine personality styles. Which one is most likely yours? What gifts and blocks does this suggest about you as a writer?


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Mary Bast is editor in chief of the Bacopa Literary Review published by WAG. A life coach with six work-related blogs and a poet with poetry and found poetry blogs, Mary’s creative writing has appeared in a variety of print and online journals. In addition to her memoir, Autobiography Passed Through the Sieve of Maya, she’s published two poetry chapbooks Eeek Love and Time Warp, and two found poetry collections, Unmuzzled, Unfettered and Toward the River. Mary is also an artist.