Sunday, October 30, 2011

On imitation and originality

You can’t write anything new.*

You just can’t. Don’t try. Don’t try to be new. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t try to find something out that no one else knows and be thought a hero for sharing this information with the world. Originality is dumb. Originality is impossible. The cult of originality stems from the idea that ideas are important. Ideas aren’t. The important part is the execution. We wouldn’t be so impressed by the pyramids millennia after their creation if they had remained sketches on papyrus.

The cult of originality stems from the idea that art is a moment of inspiration. As any artist knows, it’s not. It’s a process, at times a grueling** one, but hopefully one that is, on balance, fun and rewarding. Non-writers sometimes share their ideas with me and put a dollar amount (typically USD1 million) on their potential. I don’t really like to share my ideas because I know they’re shit. The same 4 or 5 stories are told over and over:

1) Somebody wants something and doesn’t get it and is sad.
2) Somebody wants something and gets it and is happy.
3) Somebody wants something and doesn’t it get but learns something along the way so is better off and they’re happy.
4) Somebody wants something and gets it but it turns out they didn’t really want it after all so they’re sad.
5) Two (or more) people fuck hard and there’s not really a plot but you can masturbate to it (this really could be 2a).***

The really interesting part is not the idea. The interesting part is the fact that the same story can be told over and over and we don’t get bored (unless Nicholas Sparks is telling the story). That either says something about humankind’s propensity to be easily entertained, or about humankind’s capacity to create fascinating shit out of nothing.

Everything is a reworking of something else. Our senses limit what we can comprehend or feel, but we can still comprehend a sight more than a barnacle (say), and we can festoon our ideas with flourishes that a razorback clam (say) is incapable of. The five storylines I summarized above aren't interesting to read, but in agile hands they can be fleshed out to the point of Art. Everything is a variation, no matter how closely the artist tries to hew to the original. The same is true for story and style. Even close copying gets you something different. This is why films get remade, why songs get covered.

Once, at a reading when I was about 16, I asked a writer I admired if he consciously tried to imitate other writers. He gave me a weird look and said, “No. You shouldn’t do that. Only amateurs do that. Find your own voice.”

I tried to follow his advice, for too long perhaps, but eventually found it was ridiculous. I tried to create a new voice, but there is no such thing. I mean, you can invent something totally new but it will be unintelligible, and thus worthless. (Another lesson: don’t listen to the advice of people you admire; what works for them may not work for you.)

In striving for an ideal, we almost always fall short. This is true in writing (ask any writer whether the book they wrote was the one they had in their head) and in language itself, where you have this thing called the phoneme: a group of phones (sounds) that speakers of a language will recognize as a single entity. Every sound we think of as being consistent – such as /p/ or /รค/ or /sh/ -- will be pronounced differently from region to region, from speaker to speaker, from word to word. The /p/ at the beginning of please is actually quite different from the /p/ at the end of top. So: in trying to achieve a single sound, /p/, we arrive at all sorts of nonsense that don’t match the ideal we have in our heads. And that’s just one sound. Aiming for a certain type of story or style can result in infinite variations.

Humans like imitating. (Remember the great pleasure you took in repeating your kid brother's pleas of "STOOOOOP! STOP COPYING ME!" during long car trips?) We take someone else’s actions or words and we expand, we manipulate, we interpret and experiment with it. This is the beauty of creativity, and its foundation. You cannot create something from nothing. You take what you have, and you fuck with it. You copy, and in copying you inevitably vary. In the variations is art, yes, but it is the similarities that make the variations possible. Van Gogh: “Lots of people copy, lots of people don’t copy. I copy. I find it teaches me things and above all it gives me consolation.” Copy, sure. There is no such thing as your own voice. If you’re inventing a completely new voice, you will be inventing your own alphabet and syntax, and no one will understand. Then you get silly things like the films of Andy Warhol and Joyce Wieland.**** And do we not write, above all, to be understood?

*Every time I make a blanket statement like this, I eventually think of a reason why it's total bullshit. I'll probably write a refutation of this post in the coming weeks. Sorry if I wasted your time.
**'Harder-than-watching-TV grueling,' not 'Donner-party-style-adversity grueling.'
***Kurt Vonnegut has a brilliant, graph-based assessment of the basic reappearing storylines and says that the best stories, like Hamlet, do not fit the above formula; as in life, the morality of the story is ambiguous.
****Please don't kill me for this sentence.


  1. Thanks for this, it was a good time for me to hear it. Love your blog. I read a lot and sometimes it's fun to try and guess who my favorite authors were reading when the wrote the books that I'm reading.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jesse! Stop by again sometime.

  3. To me, thinking all you do comes from your own brain cells is not this different than knowing you copy somebody. In the former, it just means you do it subconsciously, wich is not bad depending on the type of art. Also, the idea that everything has absolutely being done and redone and re-re-re-re-re-done is fatalistic and, honestly, depressing. Anyways, nice post! I'm thoroughly enjoying Cocotte up to now