The Full Catalog Of My Journalistic Wrongdoings

I’ve been self-plagiarizing for as long as I’ve been writing. I’ve cribbed sentences, similes, paragraphs, two subordinate clauses, and a handful of folksy yet profound aphorisms from myself, shunting them from one publication to another without, of course, telling anyone. If you’re reading this and it sounds like something else I’ve written, chances are you’ve probably already read it. Sometimes I write about science. Guess what? Repetition is literally embedded in our DNA. For me it’s also Freudian. When I was eight, my mother, newly divorced and desperate for a mere $25 honorarium, submitted a sci-fi story I wrote to Stone Soup, where it was published in the May/June ‘81 issue. She changed the title and put it up for the Port Chester “Small Scribbler” Award. It won silver and, after we pawned the medal and cashed the check, dinosaur-egg-sized burritos that lasted us two weeks. We’d run similar schemes with different stories year after year, tricking libraries, fire halls, and even the Nickelodeon network. Unfortunately, this led to me equating “self-plagiarize” with “collect prizes.”

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I created composite characters and conflated events. These devices saved time, provided some much-needed action, and were just a lot of fun to pull off. Have you ever turned a man into a woman, or merged two towns into one? In real life, mind you, where your falsehoods are digested as fact, not in some video game or short story. The head rush is incredible. You feel like a God.

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I fabricated a skirmish when I was stationed in Iraq. I feel bad about this one. Speaking of video games, the troop I was covering would play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on slow days, inviting myself and a few of the other “cool” reporters into the gaming tent. We completed a breakneck team mission, a real buzzer beater, in which we diverted a cache of missile payloads from enemy hands. Afterwards PFC Mike Howell said, “Which of you stringers is gonna cover that one?” I agreed to it, figuring the dare would be forgotten the next day with our hangovers. The peer pressure only increased. Finally, I broke down and wrote the fake article, thinking it would end the joke. Then someone (I’m pretty sure it was Min, from that Japanese paper no one’s ever heard of) logged onto my laptop and sent it out. I was practically awarded a Pulitzer on the spot. The 87th Infantry Regiment upheld their motto of overcoming “Might and Mountains” to beat the fact checkers. One might say our little game never really ended.

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I wasn’t the Paris correspondent for a venerated New York daily. I was on a two-year Bordeaux bender down in Aix-en-Provence, with a rotating staff of journalism majors from Syracuse doing all my reporting. The lessons on story structure I emailed to that green crew will hopefully never be forgotten. I know I’ll always remember what I learned about Provençal cheesemaking, love, Fauvism, jouissance and proper tannin structure.

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I lied about what a celebrity wore to an interview. I lovingly described a certain dress, the brand of which happened to be the largest advertiser in the magazine for which I was writing. This was no accident. My editor said to “push any label that ends with a vowel.” In actuality, the celebrity wore a badly stained sweatsuit and a shawl made from what appeared to be bubble wrap. Just so we’re clear, the star agreed to the change, and told me off the record that she wanted to start projecting a “sophisticated, yet still totally flirty” vibe. The interview itself lasted all of fourteen minutes. As a result, I fabricated every single one of her quotes. The crap I made up about the pressures of motherhood in the limelight should be celebrated as the apotheosis of empathy and imagination. Instead, I’ll never write for PARADE again.

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This one isn’t that big of a deal, but in the spirit of full disclosure: When I reviewed Bay Leaf: How One Misunderstood Spice Changed the World’s Trade Routes Forever by Peter Arno, I did that thing where it’s a total praise fest until the very end, at which point I permit myself to reveal what I really think, before turning around and wrapping it up with some positive comments. I’m sure you’ve noticed this is the house style for many major book reviews. I was especially sensitive with Bay Leaf, as I share a personal trainer with the wife of the hack who wrote it. The trainer, who calls himself Ammo, has a five-year waiting list and has transformed my life. The book, like the spice, is useless.

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My book Mind Vacations: How Five-Minute Mental Breaks and Hour-Long “Thought Getaways” Can Lead to Increased Creativity, Happiness, and Wealth was filled with pseudo-science. There is no cave in New Zealand that produces a specific hum, which, if listened to twice daily, will “clean the well-worn neural pathways of the hippocampus to allow for breakthrough thinking.” It was a loop of my refrigerator. The downloadable mp3 was a traffic-driver to my website. Listening to the noise won’t hurt, and it may work in unknown ways. The science just isn’t there yet.

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Really full disclosure: I shared an unforgettable night in Avignon with Hannah Arno, the wife of the hack who wrote Bay Leaf. Peter abuses the English language, Hannah. Don’t let him mistreat you the same way.

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Last but not least, I wrote a few articles about string theory, all of which may or may not be true. Can’t say I understand much of it myself. TC mark

image – The Newsroom

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