Mark Twain on plagiarism: There are no original ideas

So, I’m a huge fan of Brain Pickings and I get their newsletter on my subscribing email (I have one email for personal/professional jazz and another for subscriptions), and this week said newsletter included this post about Mark Twain’s letter to Helen Keller about the plagiarism fiasco Keller faced some years earlier. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Keller once wrote a poem that was found to be strikingly similar to an earlier poem, yet she claimed it was her own original work. She was cleared, and these days most people think it was a case of cryptomnesia. Anyway, the gist of Twain’s letter is that “all ideas are second-hand.” As a writer and artist, I find this to be an incredibly apt observation.

I frequently refer to myself as a collagist because when I was 18 and first went off to college I came to the realization that nihil sub soli novum est. Every idea I had that I thought was great or award-worthy had been had before by someone greater or more award-worthy than me. I came to this realization first when I wrote a short story about AIDS that my teacher pointed out was uncannily similar to Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, Hills Like White Elephants, which I hadn’t read yet. Then I wrote a screenplay about a child murderer preying on children in a working-class neighborhood until the adults in the neighborhood take matters into their own hands. One of the working-class adults marked the killer after stalking him and the rest of the community ganged up on him. I had no idea who Fritz Lang was at the time. Shortly after that I began working on an essay about how we can’t do anything without creating art, only to buy a copy of The Writings of Marcel Duchamp on eBay and see that Duchamp had the same idea 80 years prior to me.

Anyway, after getting really pissed off for a really long time that a bunch of great dead dudes were biting my game from beyond the grave, I realized that it’s probably something that every creative person deals with. In fact, it could be seen as a good thing: I am thinking along the same lines of some of the greats minds in 20th-century art and literature. This is probably a sign that I’m on the right track. Now what I do is I take other people’s ideas (or ideas that I assume have been had before me) and mash them up and try different executions and juxtapositions and so forth. I just make collages. In fact, recently I took the collagist title to a new extreme and have stopped doing any actual painting and stuck with creating collages. Last summer I made nearly two dozen collages.

So, the point is this: There are only a finite number of ideas that can be had, and with all of the people who have ever lived thinking of ideas for most of their lives, the chances are overwhelmingly great that nothing you think is actually original. The trick isn’t to do something new, it’s to do something better. Like I said before, Apple’s only innovations in the past 25 years have been in combining other people’s ideas into “better” ones and then marketing the hell out of them. And look how far Steve Jobs was able to go before his untimely death.


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