Sometimes I tell people I’m stealing things. Little things: a tissue, a handful of M&Ms, sips of a beer from the other side of the table, a pen off a co-worker’s desk. When I say this I’m kidding. I’m not actually stealing anything. Most of the time the things have been offered to me freely at some point or another. It’s because of this that on occasion someone will respond to me very seriously and say ‘you’re not stealing, I’ve given it to you.’ These people want to shake me, I’m sure, because stealing is no laughing matter. And it’s not, no matter how blasé I may appear to be about the concept. I try to take very few things seriously, but as a writer who would like to one day be published, creative output is serious business. It’s my second job, even as I’m still learning to treat it like one.
The things a person can show you about themselves and how they view the world via what they create are startling. It’s almost a contract of understanding between the creator and viewer. At times it’s tantamount to love in the way that we accept the things that creative people show us and take them into account as a whole. To love is to open your heart and to trust, and when we’re mistreated by love or creativity and our trust is broken it hurts.
I’ve been reading the Jonah Lehrer book Imagine for work. I probably would have read it anyway eventually, because of the subject matter, but my boss wanted us to read it as part of an ongoing curiosity initiative. As of this typing I’m only about 200 pages into it. I’ve been highlighting bits of quotes and observations as I go with the intention of placing them somewhere where I could find them after I pass the iPad on, but now I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure I can trust them, and I worry that that goes against my reasons for highlighting them in the first place.
When we’re presented with another person’s creative output we usually have an understanding of its relative true-ness. Fiction is no less true than non-fiction within the context of the fictional world. I frequently highlight things characters say, because I agree or disagree with them, or because there’s a small bit of myself to be found there, or because they’ve hit on an idea that I want to explore. I do this with the understanding of the author’s intent in showing us what they have about this character and what we are meant to feel because of that. I went into Imagine feeling that that intent was to explore the parts and pieces of creativity via the way people go about creating things and to understand how to get the most from these bouts and push yourself to think of creativity as a muscle you can work instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. And…that’s still true, right?
As someone who was closer than I wanted to be to a plagiarism to do several months ago, there’s a bit of visceral recoiling in my gut now when I think to read more of the book. Granted, Jonah Lehrer plagiarized himself, which isn’t nearly as bad in my eyes—authors re-purpose ideas and concepts and the like all the time, though maybe not quite as literally—but he also completely fabricated facts and quotations, which means that my understanding of how I’m supposed to look at the ideas within the book is tainted, regardless of how the information is still more or less exactly what I expect it to be. It’s made all the more troubling by the quote he gave to Stephen Colbert (emphasis mine):
[…]You fall in love with something and then you steal it. That you make it your own, you reinvent it, you in a sense misremember it. And that’s an important part of creativity which is why it’s so important to create a culture where people can liberally borrow from the ideas of others. […] And so you see this again and again among very creative people. They have very open minds, they read everything, they’re incredibly curious, and they steal a lot.
Creative people do have very open minds. They do read everything, at least the writers I know do. I imagine as a musician it would be more important to listen to all the things and as an artist it would be more important to take in all the art, but dipping liberally into all of the wells available to us will allow us to draw connections we may not have previously, and to me that’s the most important part. Creativity is not theft. That is a very simplistic way of looking at a process that devours, synthesizes, and then releases something entirely new. It’s not re-purposing or rehashing so much as it’s reconstructing from the ground up, at which point the foundation is no longer the thing that gave us the idea in the first place.
So my question is: Is learning from fiction that was presented to us as true any different than learning from fiction that we know is fiction going in? Can this book still be useful to me in the way my boss wants it to be? I think it’s probable that it can, but I’m going to need to go back and take a look at the things I’ve highlighted, just to make sure that the understanding I had of them before hasn’t been changed. And of course, any Bob Dylan quotes I’m thinking of keeping will have to be attributed to the author as they are, after all, simply dialogue in a work of fiction.