It’s chastening to reflect, guiltily or not, on the proposition that none of our ideas, pleased as we might be with their having occurred to us, cannot really be called our own. I often find myself vapidly empty of both initiative and spark when it comes to writing something – let’s say – meaningful, because all the good ideas have been snapped up and all that is left is a mish-mash, a cracked kaleidoscope, a palette put together by somebody else, and rejected in consequence.
Mark Twain’s masterful dissection to his friend Helen Keller is the sum of all writerly fears and the sound of a gently deflating ego.
“Oh, dear me, …the kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
Steve Jobs reminded us that ‘creativity is just connecting things’, the things, ideas and the ephemera of almost-there were in existence inside somebody’s head before being teased into the daylight and joined up by someone else, full-formed and ready made. Even the genius of Salvador Dali was, in his own words, subject to imitation. When he wrote ‘those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing’ – he just stated the obvious, he imitated better than everybody else. We borrow constantly, repurposing and reimagining. The writer’s craft sets about a piece and reinvigorates it, turning meanings around as if they were Mobius strips and creating a new politics out of the old.