If you have an idea that's the same as someone else's, is it still worth doing?
Today I noticed I've been writing eerily similar posts to a (previously unbeknownst to me) podcast, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
“Copying is the way design works.” - designer Matthew Ström
Copying is the way creativity works, too. When I was 13 and really, seriously, madly into being a writer, a beloved teacher told me I wrote like author Markus Zusak. At the time, I had just read his book The Messenger and was enraptured by the idea of weaving a story with attitude and personality like that. So hearing that my own work had even the most tenuous commonality with an aspirational figure spurred me on to believing I could be that if I wanted.
The years wore on and I experimented with form, turning to sparse (and then dense) poetry, songwriting, radio and screen play, journalling, science/historical/derivative fiction (fan and regular, move along now), non-fiction essays, and journalistic attempts of all kinds. In each of those forms, there was an aspirational figure, someone whose work reminded me of myself, or who was doing this work in a way that made it feel realistic for me to join them, maybe.
Flash forward to today, where I’m working to keep hold of a writing career that’s being pulled this way and that by all kinds of forces like precarity, doubt, and the draw of parallel pursuits. I have my aspirational figures and a desire to just keep on doing this for a while, which have been surprisingly resilient motivators. Part of what made the transition to full-time writing so unbelievably bearable was the practice.
I’d emulate writers I like just to see if I could match them. It’s like trying on someone else’s shoes; hard to move quickly and at risk of falling down. I’d use their favourite words (a few of them have made it in) and try to memorize their sentence structure (no luck), methodically tapping away at a much slower than usual. Sometimes I’d forget how to write as myself altogether. But what comes out of this practice is a more elastic relationship with style. One day’s light stylistic theft is the next day’s something new.
It just so happens that The Amateurist, which I thought could be something newish, is already being done by people more equipped and better funded. In fact, the very week we talked about why songs get stuck in our heads, the folks over at the Every Little Thing podcast re-released one that happened to be titled How to Shake an Earworm. As it happens, they have a long line of podcasts dedicated to “answering the burning questions”. Gobsmacked, I scrolled through the episode list to find others that struck fairly close to home.
DJs of the Bird World
What Are Dogs Saying When They Bark?
No Spacesuit, No Spaceshoes, Yes Problems
What Would Happen to Your Body in Space?
Can You Learn to Taste Better? (this one had me feeling all kinds of things, since it was basically the same one I’d been mulling over since Sunday afternoon)
Granted, these are common questions and I stake no claim to them. But it did make me wonder if it’s worth it to do the same thing as someone else, just slightly differently.
Famously, Steve Jobs copied the Xerox user interface and used it as the basis for the Macintosh operating system. Bill Gates tried to copy, but Jobs got there first, then Jobs sued the pants off anyone who tried to do the same as he did. Apple owns an astonishing 2300 design patents related to operating systems, device construction, and even device shapes, but that hasn’t stopped competitors from reimagining the long line of technological innovations for their own gain. In 2011, Samsung paid $539 million in patent violations (“rectangular device with evenly rounded corners”) thanks to Apple’s doggedness. Samsung seems to be doing fine, despite the hefty bill.
Led Zeppelin’s biggest hits are largely thanks to samples and/or uncredited covers of Black blues musicians.
George Lucas took ideas he saw all over film, across genres, and mashed them together to make Star Wars.
Matthew Ström’s piece on copying says it all, though not much about the appropriative nature of the European artists he highlights:
Japanese art was one of the main sources of inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, himself one of the most influential European painters of the 19th century, if not of all time. Van Gogh was fascinated by the woodblock prints of artists like Hiroshige: stylized and vivid, they captured dramatic moments within compelling stories.
Van Gogh’s interest went beyond inspiration. To study the techniques mastered by Japanese artists, he copied prints by Keisei Eisen and Utagawa Hiroshige. He tried to replicate their bold lines, their energetic compositions, and their strong colors. For his copy of Eisen’s A courtesan, van Gogh started by tracing the outline of the courtesan’s figure directly from the May 1886 edition of Paris Illustré. For Flowering Plum Tree and The Bridge in the Rain, both copies of Hiroshige prints, he added borders of Japanese calligraphy he had seen on other prints.
His practice with Japanese styles provided a crucial breakthrough. Van Gogh began to flatten landscapes. He outlined his subjects in bold black strokes. He painted with eye-watering colors. His interpretations of reality lit the art world on fire, influencing artists and designers to this day.
By copying directly from Japanese artists, van Gogh’s works became what we know today.
He was clear about this influence. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.”
If you have a spare 37 minutes, the video Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson is a buffet of pop culture flavours that have influenced each other for just as long as there’s been entertainment.
Copying, sampling, remixing, satirizing, blending, looping, and repackaging is just part of what creativity is. Ideas don’t happen in a vacuum; without the first thing, the source material, there is no second thing.
So yes, by the very nature of creativity and of innovation, something is still worth doing even if somebody’s already done it. Or in my case, actively still doing it. Our brains aren’t a monolith, so anything you do will be fundamentally different than if I do exactly the same thing. Why do you think so many people’s cake turn out wonky or a hundred books can be written on a single minute subject? The individual makes the thing, not the thing itself.
An idea doesn’t have to be brand new for it to be worth something.
My parting thought today is about how similar ideas tend to happen at the same time, unrelated to each other.
The invention of writing from Wikipedia:
Writing was long thought to have been invented in a single civilization, a theory named "monogenesis". Scholars believed that all writing originated in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia) and spread over the world from there via a process of cultural diffusion. According to this theory, the concept of representing language by written marks, though not necessarily the specifics of how such a system worked, was passed on by traders or merchants traveling between geographical regions.
However, the discovery of the scripts of ancient Mesoamerica, far away from Middle Eastern sources, proved that writing had been invented more than once. Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BC), Egypt (around 3250 BC), China (1200 BC), and lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala (by 500 BC).
The printing press is another example. Its origins run back to China, at least to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, from whence the oldest known printed book originates. That being said, wood block printing was also fairly common in both Korea and Japan at that time.
It was the next round of innovation that’s interesting to me, when within about 150 years of each other, Wang Chen of China and European Johannes Gutenberg both developed new methods of printing using movable type. Chen used new methods to make the blocks more durable and precise. Prior to his changes, untreated wood blocks would often deteriorate quickly thanks to the ink. Conversely, Gutenberg looked to brass, lead, and other metals to replace wood altogether. It’s possible that Gutenberg was influenced by Chen, though the mechanics of the two presses were quite different, as were the resulting styles.
The world is just ready for things sometimes, even if it’s reflections on the everyday questions like we’re doing here. In the case of the Amateurist and Every Little Thing, obviously there’s something pleasing about finding out why things are the way they are.
Or maybe we both just have some extra time on our hands.
It’s good practice to, well, practice. I write in the voice of others to flex different muscles in my brain. Designers imitate different styles to reimagine concepts that they want to refresh. App developers, musicians, podcasters, and newsletter writers (hi) are all just floating around and taking in people’s work. It is still considered art to make art based on something. There wouldn’t be 70 James Bond films or 18 Star Treks if that wasn’t the case.
Go forth and create, borrow, and innovate.