Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Note on Originality

It's a hard life being a writer, these days. Ditto for an actor, an instigator, or even a simple salesman. It's all been done, you see. It's hard to be innovative when even the quirkiest, most cockeyed inspiration was already patented by Thomas Engleberry of Bend, Oregon six years ago.

No, there is, to the best of my knowledge, no Thomas Engleberry in Bend, Oregon. If there is, I don't know him or know if he holds any patents, but I'm sure he's a very nice man.

You see? You probably gave a small, fleeting smile to that joke, passingly amused by it without conscious thought because it's a formula you've heard before. I can't name a particular instance of its use, and you probably can't either, but you have heard it, haven't you? Somewhere, you read something where someone made up a false name for a frivolous example, and then said that whatever real person bore that false name was certainly "very nice." It's been done. Many times.

It's not a rip-off, though. I'm not plagiarizing it. It came unbidden to me. I didn't write it thinking that, oh, hey, I read a good joke the other day! I think I'll put it in my blog! On the contrary, it just seemed like the most natural place to go for the next paragraph.

In the sciences, it's not really possible to just be a scholar or a researcher any more. You must be a specialist, and if you want to make a career of it, you have to be pretty damned good. The closest anyone can come to being an old-fashioned, well-rounded generalist in scientific fields in the modern world is to be a professor, to teach; and even then you'd better have either a prodigious output of publications or an ambitious and successful laboratory with your name on it, or you'll find yourself with no funding, out in the cold and obsolete even if you do have tenure. You can't simply be a biologist, or, god forbid, a naturalist any more; you have to be the foremost authority on something, perhaps the mating habits of African birds of prey, or the ecology of Florida mangroves and the impact of pollution on their growth.

For those of us with a scientific bent and broad interest, with an insatiable intellectual wanderlust as opposed to hawk-eyed, single-minded focus, this is a difficult situation. It's virtually impossible to make a career in the field we love in any way that's even remotely fulfilling to our desire to continue learning about more than the current micro-interest project that directly in front of us, and yet it's equally painful to sacrifice any sort of career in the sciences at all. For myself, my best hope is, I think, to become a science journalist or popular science writer; frankly, my writing and critical thinking have always been sharper than my ability to pay meticulous attention to detail and ferret out important data points. I'm a better inductive thinker than deductive, a better intuitor of patterns than aggregator of data, and there's no room left in the sciences for those who can't bear to focus down. The broad niches were filled by the scientific giants of yesteryear, the Newtons and Darwins, who had excellent attention to detail and the freedom to make broad, far-reaching new discoveries based on the simplest data that just hadn't been examined before.

The reason I've made this seemingly random digression into professional angst should be coming into focus now: it's hard to be original. It's not hard in the sense that it's a taxing effort to write without ripping someone off; rather, it's just a pretty fair chance that whatever you have to say will have been said before, and quite possibly said a lot better than you would say it.

There are two ways out of this, it seems to me.

The first, as in the sciences, is hyperspecialization. If you cater to such a narrow niche - temporally or numerically - that you're the only game in town, you stand a fair chance of being the first to say whatever it is you want to say. The downside, though, is the same as the upside: you're the only game in town because it's a very small town. Low general interest and a limited number of topics are sure to be problems.

The second is simply to offer yourself as the commodity, and this is what I've opted to do. The one thing any writer has that is unequivocally his own is his style. It may borrow parts of itself from any number of influences, but the final, synthetic result is, like a person's unique genetic code, simply the result of too many factors to be likely to be duplicated. Unlike in the sciences, there is an element of art to writing, and flexibility and unorthodoxy can get results because there's no objectively correct way to express something.

So this is my take on the issue of whether or not what I write has been said before: I know it has. If you're here, you're here to read me writing about it. I thank you for that, because I know that if you just wanted to read the facts about it - whatever "it" is - there are a thousand other places you could go. What I can offer is not something that's never been said before, but a new and, just maybe, better way of saying it.

In return for your loyal interest my hackneyed ramblings, I can hope that, one day, when I have a truly unique thought, you'll be the first to know.

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