Coming Clean

Today’s Twitter “Main Character” Will Surprise You…

· Updated on March 23, 2023

If you recall the “bad art friend” drama of last year, today’s literary drama is probably right up your alley. 

This morning, Iowa Writer’s Workshop novelist Jumi Bello published an essay on LitHub detailing the struggle with mental health that led her to plagiarize certain parts of her debut novel on deadline. After the essay surfaced, some folks noticed that something else was off: indeed, parts of the essay on plagiarism had also been plagiarized. LitHub pulled the piece immediately and issued a retraction.

As usual, literary Twitter had a field day with this discovery. But there’s a deeper conversation here, and other users have been quick to point out the nuance. 

First of all, the essay in question was a deeply vulnerable account of a woman struggling with mental illness and dealing with the pressure to publish at all costs. “My novel was going to come out this summer, a book deal years in the making,” Bello writes in the essay’s opening line. “And then suddenly, it wasn’t. The reason is because I committed plagiarism.”

Bello goes on to explain the pressure she was under and admits that it was her own decision to come clean about the plagiarism to publishers, even if it meant getting her own book pulled. “I didn’t want a version of the book to come out that wasn’t true to my own work,” she explained. She goes on to talk about the suicidal ideation she experienced in the wake of everything, describing herself as feeling exposed, brittle, and in pain. “I heard someone say in a movie once that the man drowning and the man in ecstasy both hold their arms outstretched,” Bello wrote. “I remember thinking that this was the perfect description for what it means to live in psychosis.” Bello writes eloquently about that psychosis, along with suicidal ideation and dissociation in her essay, but because a single part of it was plagiarized, Bello’s attempt to explain what had happened to her was mocked, ridiculed, and torn apart by people who didn’t even have a chance to read it.

Luckily, trans writer Meredith Talusan had the presence of mind to retrieve the archived version of the essay.

Greeting Bello’s attempt to come clean with empathy and care, Talusan explained on Twitter that she related to Bello’s description of living in a world that never tries to make space for your or your experience, a world in which all the rules seem confusing and randomly understood by everyone but you.

And as others have pointed out, this is not Bello’s failure, but the editor’s:

Others offered helpful advice for writers in a similar situation:

And still others reminded us of the deeper truth of the matter:

It’s easy to laugh at someone else’s perceived failure or shortcomings, but the truth is that vulnerability is the only real reason to write anything at all. And sometimes uncomfortable truths come with those attempts to be vulnerable.

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