Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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 though 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:
- Something you encountered recently,
- 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 go off (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.
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 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.