Cryptomnesia Can Kill Your Writing Career – Here’s How To Avoid It

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A writer’s mind is an amazing thing, trapping the minor details of everyday life to twist, inspect, and repurpose in fiction. Often, authors can’t say where their inspiration comes from – it’s too diffuse; disparate concepts being brought together through an alchemy that you can command without truly understanding. But what happens when that process turns against you? It’s called cryptomnesia, and it can cause more trouble than you might think.

What is cryptomnesia?

Cryptomnesia is an insidious process by which a forgotten memory returns without being recognized as a memory. In everyday life, it might lead to someone telling a friend’s story as their own, or even misremembering a joke from TV as something they just thought up. In writing, though, it can often bring authors to the brink of plagiarism, often without them even realizing what’s happening.

Left unchecked, cryptomnesia could get you sued.Click To Tweet

Authors can recreate plots, characters, themes, imagery, and even phrasing, completely believing that it’s their own invention. This isn’t the preserve of amateurs – famous writers like Nietzsche, Colleen McCullough, and Umberto Eco have either admitted to suffering from cryptomnesia or fans assume it’s the case because the only other explanation is deliberate plagiarism.

The distinction may matter on a personal level, but in legal terms there’s little differentiation between cryptomnesia and deliberate plagiarism. Similarly, readers are unlikely to be generous if they feel an author is ‘copying’ the work of others, and can be turned off in droves despite an innocent explanation.

That’s all before the effect on the author. Helen Keller’s The Frost King involved incidents of self-acknowledged cryptomnesia, which severely affected her confidence in future writing.

I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book… It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind.

– Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

Here, however, Keller makes an excellent point – it’s the intent of great art to get under our skin, to change how we see the world and stay with us after we experience it. How, then, can we be expected to keep it out of our own writing?

Is cryptomnesia really a problem?

Inspiration is a funny thing, and often more indebted to outright imitation than we might like to admit. We write what fascinates us, and often what fascinates us is brought to our attention by other artists. There’s a strong argument to be made for the history of art as an unbroken process of imitation with slight variations according to individual perspective.

This argument doesn’t invalidate art or its meaning, it just places an emphasis on the value of new perspectives and of variations in presentation. In The Simpsons episode ‘The Day the Violence Died’, the famous animated show makes the same argument, even acknowledging its own police chief character as a result of the process.

If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing The Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have The Flintstones. If someone hadn’t ripped off Sergeant Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat. Huckleberry Hound, Chief Wiggum, Yogi Bear? Ha! Andy Griffith, Edward G. Robinson, Art Carney. Your Honor, you take away our right to steal ideas, where are they gonna come from?

– John Swartzwelder, The Simpsons, ‘The Day the Violence Died

It’s a valid point, and authors shouldn’t feel the need to start regarding their inspiration as something tawdry. The old saying ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’ is still in effect: if you make something your own, that’s exactly what it is.

You can be directly inspired by other art without suffering from cryptomnesia.Click To Tweet

Despite this, it’s still worth being on guard against cryptomnesia in terms of how much of your inspiration comes from one place, and the type of thing you’re recreating in your work.

In an account of his own cryptomnesia, Robert Louis Stevenson draws an interesting distinction between being inspired by individual images and ideas, and recreating the ‘inner spirit’ of someone else’s work.

I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade, I am told, is from Masterman Ready. It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them ‘Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another’ — and I was the other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther. I chanced to pick up the Tales of a Traveller some years ago with a view to an anthology of prose narrative, and the book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family. It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.

– Robert Louis Stevenson, The Art of Writing

As something that happens to an author, cryptomnesia is cruel in that it robs them of a sense of ownership and originality, and this increases exponentially as a piece is published and put before readers. Many authors have written eloquently on the subject for just this reason – it’s at once difficult and personally important to clarify that plagiarism was unintentional, even as if it means distancing yourself from something you were proud of.

As I’ve discussed before, it’s difficult to prove plagiarism of an idea, concept, theme, or even (literary) imagery, so authors don’t need to be too worried about cryptomnesia landing them in hot legal water (though it is possible), but accusations can harm your brand, especially when they come with specific examples of what’s been reproduced. With that in mind, there are some things you can do to lessen the risk.

How can I avoid cryptomnesia?

First of all, you have to accept that, by its nature, you can’t see your own cryptomnesia. An old memory will occur to you as a new idea, and there’ll be no apparent reason to question its veracity. Preventing severe cryptomnesia is therefore a four-step process:

  • Know it’s possible,
  • Know the form it’s likely to take,
  • Seek outside opinions,
  • Accept that minor cryptomnesia will happen.

This article should have helped with the first step, but it’s also worth making a conscious effort not to be too touchy when the topic comes up. We can’t help cryptomnesia, and if someone raises it as a possibility, they’re not knocking your integrity. Being open to the idea that cryptomnesia can strike the best of us may be what lets you catch it before it does any damage.

Cryptomnesia can be hard to spot, but there’s a four-step plan that will protect you.Click To Tweet

Something else that can help is knowing the form your cryptomnesia is likely to take. Cryptomnesia can come from anywhere, but there are two factors that come up again and again in author accounts:

  1. Something you encountered recently,
  2. Something that influenced you as a child.

The former depends on your personal disposition, but will exist in a window that’s far enough from the present moment to have passed from memory but still recent enough to be easily accessed when searching for ideas. When considering the possibility of cryptomnesia, it’s therefore worth asking if there’s anything in the last two to six months that you might be drawing from unconsciously

Art encountered in childhood is another big contributor to cryptomnesia, burying whole stories in your subconscious only to have them emerge later, feeling unfamiliar but ‘right’. Obviously, you can’t catalog your childhood reading, but you can appreciate the type of work you were interested in, and investigate any suspicions you have of ideas that arrive too fully formed in that vein.

Finally, be aware that there’s the potential for cross-media cryptomnesia. You may well remember an image or another detail from a movie, or even a song, and accidentally recreate it, so don’t rule these sources out when interrogating your work.

Once you’ve taken stock of where cryptomnesia is likely to come from, and you’re aware enough of it that you’re suspicious of ideas that form too quickly, look too perfect, and cling absolutely to your favorite themes, you’ll be in a position to seek outside help. This can take various forms, but usually involves a quick word to someone either a) well-versed in your genre or b) well-versed in your past reading.

Finally, if no warning bells sound (and a studious Google doesn’t raise any red flags), you’ve done everything you can. At this point, appreciate that, as an artist, your perspective changes things more than you might think, and where you might see obvious recreation, others will see a tenuous link at most.

This four-step process is exemplified in Neil Gaiman’s handling of his short story ‘Other People’, which he describes in the foreword to his short fiction collection Fragile Things.

I remember jotting down the idea and the first line, and wondering if it was original – was I half remembering a story I’d read as a boy, something by Frederic Brown or Henry Kuttner? It felt like someone else’s story, too elegant and edgy and complete an idea, and I was suspicious of it… I called a handful of knowledgeable friends and read it to them, asking if it seemed familiar, if anyone had read it before. They said no.

– Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things

Don’t let cryptomnesia slow you down

Authors usually have one of three responses to hearing about cryptomnesia. Either they’ve already experienced it, and they’re glad it’s common enough to have a name, they think it’s a made-up excuse for plagiarism, or they’re terrified it’ll happen to them.

If you’re in this last group, don’t worry too much. As I said above, most cryptomnesia is minor and will never be noticed, just part of the endless, necessary churn of inspiration. Where that isn’t the case, being aware of the risk will help, and a conscious check for cryptomnesia can be added to your editing process as a sensible precaution. Don’t feel like you have to distrust every idea that comes your way, but when they start looking like a story, take an inventory of your conscious inspirations and you might be saving some time, and your reputation, down the line.

Have you had your own brush with cryptomnesia? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more tips on improving your own work, check out Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor and Four Simple Tips To Catch More Errors When Proofreading.


16 thoughts on “Cryptomnesia Can Kill Your Writing Career – Here’s How To Avoid It”

  1. Great topic. However, titling the article “Cryptomnesia Can Kill Your Writing Career …” and ending it with “don’t worry too much. … most cryptomnesia is minor and will never be noticed, just part of the endless, necessary churn of inspiration” seems a little disingenuous. 😉 Enjoyed the perspectives of established authors but was looking to learn of some writers who actually did kill their careers as well, in support of your premise. Clickbait title aside, thank you for raising awareness!

    1. Hi No Need,

      Thanks for the kind words and honest criticism. ‘Disingenuous’ seems a little unfair as cryptomnesia absolutely can kill your career, it’s just that your best protection against it doing so is knowing it’s a possibility. It’s like telling someone to get out of the road before a car comes; there’s a simple fix, but that doesn’t mean the problem wasn’t serious.

      As for people who had their careers ruined by cryptomnesia, it’s not so easy to pick an example, for two reasons. First, because falling afoul of cryptomnesia generally means being labeled a deliberate plagiarist, and second, it’s hard to prove a negative – we can only speculate on the careers people might have had, if cryptomnesia hadn’t poisoned their brand. Those who get ruined tend to be bounced by publishers or get jeered off the scene – the ones we hear about are those who get away with it or where it might all be a coincidence.

      Helen Keller seems a good partial example, as there’s a strong argument that her brush with cryptomnesia changed her relationship with fiction, and the freedom she felt to write it (it also torpedoed her reputation in certain circles). A more modern example might be comedian Dane Cook, who has been accused of stealing material from other comics, and even become something of a byword for that kind of theft. Again, it’s impossible to know whether it was cryptomnesia, theft, or coincidence, and Cook hasn’t been driven destitute, but it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t lost significant fans and opportunities thanks to the furore. Other than that, it’s probably safe to assume that every plagiarism payout has one side that’d rather call it cryptomnesia.

      Thanks again for reading. Here’s hoping that our next topic fits a heading more along the lines of ‘Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel.’


  2. Perfect response, Rob. Those types of examples help fulfill the promise of the title, even with the understandable caveats. Raising awareness is not only important for writers, but for all of us too quick to judge when shadows of plagiarism are cast on other’s work. There is so much content available today, cryptomnesia is probably impossible to avoid without conscious effort, and you have helped to raise conscious awareness.

    1. Hi No Need,

      Thanks very much, I’m glad the reply was useful. You’re not wrong about the volume of content we consume, and how it primes us to experience cryptomnesia. The best we can reasonably do is guard against the big stuff, and hope our talent and perspective is enough to make the small stuff our own.


  3. Angela van Schalkwyk

    Sometimes when I want to capture a particular mood or reaction, I’ll turn to one of the books I admire and which touch on what I’m trying to capture in my own writing. I use these passages to stimulate my creative thinking. But, just today I used the image of two would-be lovers’ hands touching. The way I adapted this image is I believe different and I hope I’ve made it my own. But oh my, now I’m wondering if I hven’t engaged in cryptomnesia.

    Thanks for this useful article and alerting me to guarding against “the big stuff”.

    1. Hi Angela,

      As you say, if you’ve put your own spin on it and it’s only a single image, it almost certainly falls into safe ground. Being reminded of cryptomnesia can make authors skittish for a few days, but it’s worth it to guard against major issues.


  4. Dear Robert,
    I truly like your site, your obvious love of writing, and that you take the time to do it.  Your current piece made me reflect and laugh.
    While it’s reported that Columbia Pictures lost a plagiarism case to the complainant where only two words, a proper geographical name no less, were similar, and that
    misrepresenting other’s work as one’s own is instantly agreed by even the youngest of children, as not ethical, there is a nervous anxiety amongst the insecure that has reached hilarious levels.
    There have been big cases where appropriation of whole pages and chapters are obviously plagiarism. I’m not addressing that.
    What’s risen is a nervous problem with the West’s lust for individuality, originality, and ownership.  We find a mania for the accusing finger proclaiming “plagiarized!”
    Companies have sprung up to advantage themselves over the  current mania and anxiety that somewhere you may have copied someone else. You even supply a newly coined word for this forgotten assimilation: cryptomnesia.
    Sadly, little is made, or even taught in so-called public education about the history of ideas, writing, art,  and innovation.
    Without focused effort at copying one’s admired models prior to finding one’s voice, there would be far less of, well, everything. Copying and improving existing inventions, often times radically so, has improved the lives of humans immensely.
    By the way, the last ten words of your article’s title are, I am nearly certain, appropriated from elsewhere.  Plagiarism checking sites, short of suggesting you cease using the English language entirely, are glad to ratchet up your anxiety, makes their “services” more valuable in dollars.
    The fact is that copies, in the end cannot substantiate the author, as our nose for originality eventually twitches differently over the real as opposed to the mimicked.
    By the way that name of yours, Robert Wood, is likely plagiarized from the well-known, James Wood. Please be cautioned,  as my friend Michael Carley warned me, “life is  sexually transmitted.”

    1. Hi Jason,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for the kind words. While I believe the term ‘cryptomnesia’ was first recorded in 1874 (regarding a séance, no less), the ubiquity of the internet has definitely made comparison easier, and thus spurred fears about copying, both purposeful and accidental. Likewise, there’s a constant reappraisal of the cultural canon, which rightly draws attention to the innovations and contributions of authors who have, for various reasons, been overlooked.

      Becoming obsessed with origins and credit is of course undesirable – and has definitely been abused by purveyors of snake oil – but an awareness of cryptomnesia can save authors a lot of time and effort. There’s an episode of Frasier where the brothers Crane point out a similarity to the Divine Comedy in an acquaintance’s manuscript and, seeing the similarity through fresh eyes, he frantically tries to burn it rather than let it be seen by anyone else. Though less dramatic, I’ve seen this happen to multiple authors. You think an idea is totally your own and then someone says the right thing and, click, you realize how demonstrably untrue that is. It’s hard to be suspicious of your own thoughts, though obviously destructive to interrogate every last one to extremes.


  5. Claire Stephen-Walker

    I am very glad that this has a name! I recently had to scrap the first draft of what I thought was going to be a promising novel when I reread a very old favourite, and realised that my plot beats were almost identical. Glad I reread the original before I’d wasted more than a month on the draft, though!

    It’s certainly made me more wary of the potential influences of any of the story ideas that I have.

    1. Hi Claire,

      Thanks for commenting. It’s a shame that you fell foul of cryptomnesia, but it’s also a common trap for authors, so congratulations on catching yourself in time. Solutions vary, from scrapping a project to drawing on a wider pool of influences, but it’s always valuable to keep in mind (or even figure out) what base elements ensured that certain things got inconveniently stuck in your head. Often, they’re seeds you can grow into something original.


  6. My father once told me that there is no longer such of a thing as an original idea. Most of the time I’ve seen cryptomnesia the writer calls it a ‘tribute’ to such and such to avoid being called a plagiarist. But I ask you is that enough?

    1. Hi Janice,

      An interesting question, thanks very much for posing it. The difference between tribute and theft is certainly difficult to navigate from the outside – I think Robert Louis Stevenson’s comments show how incredibly thin a line it is to walk.


  7. One of my primary motivations for writing is to create works that are completely different from anything I’ve seen before and I believe I naturally steer clear of cryptomnesia. My fear is what I call the “Only Lovers Left Alive” pitfall after the recent indie film by Jim Jarmusch. “Only Lovers Left Alive” hinges on vampire tropes that apparently had already become clichéd before he even conceived the film due to the inundation of vampire-themed media in popular culture in the last 2 decades. Unfortunately, because Jarmusch wasn’t abreast of popular trends, he wasn’t aware of a vampire craze or that his film contained typical tropes of 21st-century vampire lore (“vegetarian” vampires etc). I’m certain he arrived at these ideas completely independently of their evolution in pop culture. Because, like him, I don’t have much exposure to mainstream media, I’m so terrified of committing the same mistakes that I’m considering watching hundreds of hours of bad tv and movies with similar motifs to my WIP(s) just to be certain I don’t inadvertently ”imitate” or “copy” mass media. I’m not looking forward to it. Any advice on how to avoid it or do you think it can be beneficial to expose yourself to mediocre entertainment intended for mass consumption just to have a sense of the zeitgeist?

    1. Hi Y Mi,

      As a short answer, I’m actually strongly in favor of deliberately seeking out some poor art in your chosen field. Finding great works that exemplify amazing artistry is hard, but finding poor works that exemplify poor artistry is easy. You don’t want to ONLY learn how not to do it, but that lesson is still valuable.

      I also think you need at least SOME acquaintance with the zeitgeist to communicate effectively with readers. Not so you can conform, but just so you can (as you describe) be aware of the assumptions and tastes they’re likely to bring to the table.

      I was talking to a friend recently when a popular horror ‘monster’ came up, and they said they’d had trouble with a story including that monster because readers kept assuming it was evil, but that wasn’t how they saw it. The issue wasn’t that they had a unique way of seeing the monster, or even that popular opinion differed, but that they weren’t going to the trouble of anticipating how their readers would naturally view this character and then persuading them to feel a different way. That type of persuasion is only possible if you have some grasp of the biases a reader is likely to bring with them.

      This comes under the larger umbrella of ‘know the rules before you break them,’ which I think is one of the most widely applicable pieces of advice about art.


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