A few weeks ago my husband sent me an article about how many Instagram users are taking the same photos. The standard photo taken through the doorway of a tent. Your hand holding leaves or flowers in the foreground and a beautiful environmental scene in the background. The picture of someone on a suspension bridge that draws the viewer into the photo.
It’s not bad to take the same photos as other people. But it does speak to some kind of cultural conditioning, some barely aware sense that if other people are getting likes for their “door of tent” photos, then maybe you will, too.
Artist Austin Kleon wrote Steal Like an Artist, which obviously shows that he’s a big proponent of using other peoples’ ideas in our work. But he means borrowing ideas – not wholesale copying of other peoples’ work. As TS Eliot said,
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
That’s the key right there. You can borrow ideas from anyone (though be aware of cultural appropriation) – but you have to make them your own. Whether that’s something better, or just something different. You have to put your own stamp on it.
So why might all these Instagrammers be imitating rather than borrowing? I think it has something to do with the “unpolluted mind.”
My husband ran across this term while reading about a book by woman woodworker, Nancy Hiller, called Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Hiller felt she had an unpolluted mind because she hadn’t learned woodworking the traditional way, through trade school and apprenticing. Instead, she’d pretty much struck out on her own. She did home renovations – mostly cabinetry – but she also built fine furniture. She felt that her creativity wasn’t compromised by going through a homogenizing training program.
Barbara Kingsolver mentioned something similar when we chatted a few weeks ago. I’d asked her what kind of writer she might have become had she taken more writing courses (she just switched from science writing to writing fiction), or participated in more workshops and conferences (as a new mother and an author, she didn’t have time for these things). She felt that, had she got an MFA, it would have curtailed her ambition and literary vision by teaching her how she *should* write rather than how she *could* write. For example, she would have been taught not to combine the three key struggles: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself, which is something she’s done in several of her books. She also feels she would have been trained to write what was “popular” in the literary world of the time: novels of small scope that focused on the minutiae of marriages etc. Which wasn’t what she wanted to write. She thinks that following the non-traditional route has allowed her to take risks and generate ideas that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
I think about my mind being unpolluted when I think about building a writing cabin. Just a small 6’x8’ structure in the yard that has a long bench as a desktop and a long window to look out over the garden.
My husband asked me what would be different about writing there rather than in my home office, or on the front porch. And I realized it was two-fold. One was the physical act of leaving the house to enter a different space meant for writing and creating. Two was to have a space unpolluted by computer temptations and house chores. Even when I write in my home office, the computer is there, waiting for me to wake it up and check my Twitter or Facebook pages. The dishes in the sink upstairs are calling me to put them in the dishwasher. There’s a list as long as my arm of things that need to be done in the garden. But as soon as I step outside the house and into my writing cabin, all of those mind pollutants will be gone. There will just be me, my pen, the page, and the view out the window.
I think this idea of the unpolluted mind also ties into social media. It’s easy to get caught in feedback loops that confirm your existing biases and don’t challenge them too much. Sometimes I’ll hear about a particularly big science or science communication story because my entire network is talking about it, and I read all of the commentary and feel like I have nothing to add because everything’s already been said. This is another danger of the polluted mind – the idea of having nothing to add.
This may be where those copycat Instagrammers come in: they notice what gets likes on social media and what doesn’t, and instead of going with new ideas, they go for the Pavlovian thrill of getting “likes” for images that are just like someone else’s.
This is why I’ve amped up my reading of essays and book reviews at places like The Paris Review, LitHub, the LA Review of Books, the NY Review of Books, and others. Because the commentary is always relevant but includes tidbits that only the writer would know – they may talk about something that the media is buzzing about, but they bring in their own, original ideas. The best writers make comparisons between books and bring in quotes from other authors, spinning a yarn out of a combination of borrowed and created fabric.
To create requires that we control our attention. We must focus that attention on the page, the canvas, the sculpture…you get the point. But there are many interests competing for our attention – most of them via social media, but also advertising in public spaces and on TV (if anyone really watches it anymore – these days it’s all Netflix and chill).
As James Williams writes in Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy,
“In the longer term…[digital marketing] can make it harder for us to live the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine fundamental capacities such as reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.””
The “reflection and self-regulation” noted in this quote are keys to the unpolluted mind. Indeed, as Alyssa Loh writes in the same piece,
“Our attention — the core of our actual mental processes — is now central to the business models of some of our largest technology firms…in the process of using [our devices], we seem less and less able to achieve the elemental condition of freedom: deciding, in the space of a mind that is our own, what we actually want to do — and then doing it.”
The unpolluted mind also relates to our place in the world, in geography itself. I much prefer using a paper map to an automated GPS unit, as I can choose the route I want instead of relying on a disembodied voice to send me from A to B using the same directions it would use for everyone.
This also applies to how we experience other art, whether that’s books or paintings or plays. As David Ulin writes:
“My favorite experience as a reader or viewer is to open a book or walk into a gallery or a theater knowing as little as possible about what I’m about to read or see. This is how I prefer to write also: know as little as you can before you start so that the act of drafting becomes a process of discovery. I’ve never written an outline, and the further along I go, the less that sort of mechanical approach interests me. I used to want to know where something ended. Now I look for a good first line and see where it leads.”
To create effectively and originally, we need to be able to start from nothing – no preconceptions, no pre-judgments. We need to be able to do a deep dive into our mind to find original ideas, not jingles from popular ads. We need to come up with new ways of putting the same old things together so that they appear completely different. We need to think hard about what and how we want to communicate via our creativity.
You may have an MFA or be a regular user of social media (*raises hand*). But we can consciously move beyond that to re-create an unpolluted mind that is free of dogma and believes in more than one way to do the same thing. A mind that has ideas outside of the normal news cycle, and refuses to let its attention be harnessed by advertising. That takes the best of social media and discards the worst, coming up with new ways to look at existing stories. That focuses on the borrowing and remaking of ideas, not just the wholesale copying of them.
So next time you sit down to create, consider how you can start with an unpolluted mind. Maybe a brief moment of meditation, or deliberately turning off (all of) your device(s). Or a moment of introspection: what do I want to create, how, and why? We can reclaim our attention from the attention merchants and decide what we actually want to do – then do it.
Note: the featured image for this post is from https://www.flickr.com/photos/lovelornpoets/6034634225, CC BY-2.0.