Editorial: October 5
How many times have you sat down to write a paper and stared at the blank page for half an hour? What was stopping you? The fabled “writer’s block?” A poor understanding of your topic or a lack of research? A confusing assignment description? Just plain laziness?
I’ve experienced these all. But the older I get and the more I write, particularly in 300-level classes, the more another worry pops up — originality. I worry that I have nothing new, nothing important, nothing worth reading to say. It happens here in Chimes as well. I often struggle to find topics that will interest students, and I get nervous about making too many claims. Why are you reading what I have to say? What new ideas can I possibly put into your head?
Professors ask us to come up with a thesis including a “unique claim” for argumentation papers. We’re expected to read dozens of academic articles and books, but then use all those claims to create our own completely new idea. “Anything else is plagiarism!” they cry. “Cite every sentence you quote, every paragraph you paraphrase. (The author’s last name page number) should appear after every other sentence, at least! This is not your work,” they say, “so don’t take credit. But do, without including any of the thoughts you read about, come up with your own idea. Be original!”
It happens with subjective assignments as well. “Be creative!” they say. “Show me something I’ve never seen before! Find a new point of view, do the unexpected. You will be graded on creativity.” Very few of us, I’d venture, have the genius required to create completely new art or writing. (A note — much of this centers on the humanities. Scientific fields, it seems, have a bit more possibility for new discoveries.)
I’m not going to advocate plagiarism. No, you shouldn’t use quotes unattributed. You shouldn’t copy someone else’s artwork and claim it for your own. But there’s something wrong, I think, with a field that can’t admit that nothing is original.
That’s right, I said nothing. Everything we say, write or create is influenced by everything we read, watch or hear.
Amidst all this angst about originality, I’ve been reassured lately by several writers who contend that all material is recycled and we only need to learn how to present it in a new way. Austin Kleon’s recent book is called “Steal Like an Artist.” “Every artist gets asked the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’” he writes. “The honest artist answers, ‘I steal them.’” It all comes down to deciding what to steal and how to repurpose it, he claims. It’s even in the Bible, Kleon notes. Ecclesiates 1:9 — “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
“The artist is a collector,” he writes next. And isn’t that true? An artist, someone who aims to be creative and original, is really someone who just pieces together parts of things she loves. My perfect creative act, a novel let’s say, would be Steinbeck’s characters with Safran Foer’s postmodernism and “Little Miss Sunshine’s” positivity. It might be a new story (though “there’s only one story” is a theory as well), but it’d be affected by everything I’ve ever ingested.
The lesson, really, is don’t sweat it. Creativity is a protean concept, one we’ll never truly get our hands around.
In the spirit of stealing like an artist, I’ll end with a sizable passage written by American independent film director Jim Jarmusch. In it, he argues that originality is an outdated concept, and reminds us to steal like an artist.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’”