Of Originality and Theft

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Hanging above my desk, you’ll find a sheet of paper taped to the wall. It’s titled “The Great Gatsby” and one of the quotes on it says this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”

These words, as you could probably guess, are from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As you may remember from school days, these are the first two paragraphs of the book. This means that, among other facts, Gatsby has the best first and last lines of any book I can remember. They’re both exceptionally relevant to Mr. Gatsby, to America, and to life in general.

This also raises another question from school days. For as you may or may not know, what I wrote yesterday began “In my younger years…” Surely, it could be coincidental that above my desk hangs a quote that begins roughly the same way. The exactness of the copy ends after three words.

But I have to tell you something. It’s not a coincidence. I’m certain I was influenced by Fitzgerald’s words. And I know that though I wasn’t looking at the paper above my desk when I thought to write the words, they were the reason the sentence began as it did. Whether this is the common school activity of copying, the less common plagiarizing, or the everywhere claim of “inspiration,” I’m not sure.

But I do know that the idea to talk about this isn’t mine either. I stole this idea from a recent episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they stole the idea from somewhere–though I don’t want to insult their honesty and originality.

It’s just that I don’t know if anyone has ever written anything new. I sincerely doubt I have. In school the objects you so often produce–analyses or history, literature, or philosophy–are varying degrees of stolen. Perhaps from class discussion, something your friends said, or what was on TV last night, but many teachers would probably agree it all feels lamely copied. In all other aspects of life this happens to a similar but less obvious degree. People have greater variety of sources from which to steal when they’re talking about topics other than books they’ve not read.

To steal again: Benjamin Franklin once said “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” And we should not forget that aside from being one America’s most prominent founders, the man was also an important inventor.

I will concede that there is a danger of reducing this too far. Even though I feel that my grammar’s stolen from writers past and present, there’s an unavoidable necessity in all of this. I couldn’t be understood if in speaking English I didn’t use some well understood–which is to say copied–grammatical conventions. Witness a learner struggling to be understood and you’ll soon understand that truth.

So too are there sound reasons for using well-established metaphors–you may know them as clichés. They help us understand and be understood.

If we generally think that originality is good and copying–especially plagiarism–is bad, but agree that we must persist in using borrowed grammars and metaphors, perhaps I know the proper metaphor (to steal) to explain all this.

We’re all on a tightrope. Lean too far either way and we fall off, down below those admirable souls on tightropes. To one side is the danger that we’ll be too original to be understood. Either out of ignorance or arrogance our metaphors and grammar will make us unintelligible to the people we know. To the other side is the danger that we’ll be so derivative as to be meritless. Either out of ignorance or arrogance we’ll steal too obviously from other authors and commentators and have nothing meaningful to add to the discussion. It’s a hard rope to walk, but it’s the one we’re on.

5 responses to “Of Originality and Theft”

  1. There are times when I “come up with an original idea”, for an art piece, or a bit of writing, only to discover that it is being created simultaneously by someone else.
    I have long avoided doing “artist’s workshops” to learn other artist’s techniques, for fear of the accusation of “copying”, the cardinal sin of art making.
    I wonder what others’ thoughts are about the phenomenon of simultaneous creativity. Are we all tapping into the same Muse, but don’t know it? Do we think it’s just ‘our’ muse?

    I love the B. Franklin quote.

  2. That’s a fascinating point. My first instinct would be to say that you and another artist have similar influences–TV shows, artists who catch your attention, things you’re reading–and thus the same novel idea, but I don’t know how likely that is.

    I’ve also noticed a similarly curious phenomenon–the occurrence of big words. I’ll see a “big” word appear in writings and programs in close succession and then disappear. I think this, and perhaps your thing as well, is partly the zeitgeist–the ideas and trends going round at the time–and also confirmation bias–after noticing or using a word/technique, you’re on (unconscious) alert for it’s recurring.

  3. I have experienced hearing a new word, absorbing it, and then seeing it everywhere! It certainly had been there before, but it wasn’t “on my radar”, so I missed it.

    With the blogs, I notice a similar topic occuring simultaneously on unrelated blogs. I think that speaks to what you said about people being aware of similar influences.

    The confirmation bias is a fascinating article. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. Reminds me of that classic Emerson lament, “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients”.

    The role of cryptomnesia in the evolution of thought is really interesting. Your funambulist metaphor reminded of yet another quote, from Norman Mailer. Paraphrased, “If they read it and understand it, they think they already knew it”.