Originality is the Art of Hiding Your Sources

You should do something for your country instead of always asking for what your country can do for you.

Roman statesman and orator

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

John F. Kennedy
35th President of the United States

Originality requires influence. Originality is also the art of hiding your sources. That’s why I’m not going to say who came up with either of the first two sentences. But my issue with influence and plagiarism is just that: not revealing your sources.

It’s quite simple, really. For example, “The use of language begins with imitation. The infant imitates the sounds made by its parents; the child imitates first the spoken language, then the stuff of books. The imitative life continues long after the writer is secure in the language, for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires.” E.B. White wrote these brilliant sentences in The Elements of Style, a book which, ironically, E.B. White did not write, but \ extended in many editions. The original writer of this book was White’s English professor at Cornell University, William Strunk Jr.

I began writing for fun in the third grade. My first book was about covert espionage–secret agent Timothy “Ty” Stevens traveled the world to fight terrorism. The story later turned into a trilogy, and that would not have been possible if I had not played the video game Syphon Filter for the Sony PlayStation. In fact, the third book was a total ripoff of the second game of the series (I was lazy and in a rush to finish).  As I got older, I ventured into writing other stories not necessarily based on my favorite books, movies, or television shows, but they did influence my stories: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia all had a hand in my earlier works, and they still do today.

Humans can’t avoid influence; we are social creatures. We love to work in groups and speak with others in a fit of excitement or boredom, depending on the topic and who’s talking. It should be no surprise that great artists like T.S. Eliot and William Shakespeare “borrowed” the works of others.

Why do they deserve recognition in schools around the world? Probably because they worked in the spirit of copyright’s original purpose. It gives “authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.” Jonathan Lethem said that last sentence, by the way. Sure, Shakespeare lifted material from previous plays and history. We praise him for transforming these ideas into something fresh. We praise him for his masterful expression of universal human experience: laughter, sadness, hatred, love, doubt, loneliness, death, life. Somehow, we are able to better understand our world because of an artist’s work. He did something better than his predecessors.

However, artists lose respect and credibility if they do not openly admit where their work came from. There’s no need to hide the source–the modern world will eventually find out. With the Internet at our disposal, with the world shrinking into a small village, and with the collective knowledge of humanity, we will discover who you copied.

But we’ll still love your work.

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4 Responses to Originality is the Art of Hiding Your Sources

  1. wacrant2011 says:

    I love your post. There is so much that isn’t original out there, that we assumed was. I think it all comes down to proper attribution. I agree with you about the issue of “not revealing your sources”. That is what is most important, the proper attribution. I love the comics you put up with your post by the way, very creative

  2. I see you are a Strunk and White fan as well. I love the quote by White about imitation. We are imitating style, are we not? Instead of using the words of another and calling it our own, we are emulating the writing style and adding our own personal voice. The reason students begin to write, especially in elementary school, and early, without being required, is to find a voice and to make your experiences personal.Good luck with your writing!

  3. scrapscribe says:

    I like this. It does all go back to attribution. All I can think of is when I was taking a Victorian poetry class and people were talking about the HEEPS of footnotes to the texts. Tennyson loved some good old intertextuality, and Robert Barrett-Browning DEFINITELY did. No on is truly unique; we are indeed all an amalgamation of various events that have influenced our lives. 🙂

  4. I agree with your post and the last person to comment on your post. We have all been influenced by various people, events, books, classes, etc. throughout our lives. There is no way for me to give all of those responsible for my vast array knowledge credit for all the things I have learned. I just know what I know because I know it. I liked what you said about copying things to make them better. I love it when people take a concept that is confusing and make it easier for me to understand; I appreciate the concept more as a result.

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