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  • J.A. Willoughby

ORIGINALITY? Everything Comes From Somewhere

Unless you were the first ancient ancestor of the human race to strike a bone on a log, imitate a bird's whistle, scratch charcoal drawings of animals on a cave wall, blow a pigmented fluid of spit over your outstretched hand on a rock or chipped away at a projectile point, you've got nothing on the next person, with regards to originality.

As individuals, it is in our nature to look for something to which we can relate, explore it, embrace it, use it, possibly adapt it to suit or needs in a better way. That’s called innovation and progress and without it our society would stagnate. Without imagination and creation or (re)creation this world would be a pretty boring place. So, why do we take it upon ourselves to make something from others’ inspirations?

I’m no expert on the human brain or anthropology, but my succinct answer to that would be - because we can. We are all drinking from the same well, genetically speaking.

Originality, in the world of art or music, is “borrowed inspiration”. In the world of academia, it is "noted theft": stick a source as a footnote to the end of your “original” article or paper, and you're good to go. Back to art and music, if you “plagiarize” your own creations, repeat techniques and methods, it’s called "style". Much has been espoused on this subject. Here are a few of the more well-known observations.

“We do not imitate, but are a model to others.” Pericles (460-429 B.C.)

Lionel Trilling ((1905–1975) simplified that sentiment with, “Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.” (Esquire, Sept. 1962)

And one of the most recognizable euphemisms on the subject, “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery” by Charles Caleb Colton (1824) “Lacon, Or, Many Things in a Few Words: Addressed to Those who Think”

I readily (and proudly) admit that I was influenced by Rod Serling in my writing of This Side of Center. His Twilight Zone and Night Gallery stories and teleplays, commentary on social issues of the day, greatly influenced my youthful critical thinking and stimulated and infused my imagination and creative processes. Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, did the same with his moralistic center wrapped around an ongoing science fiction tale of the positive-leaning future of mankind.

These persons and the commercial products of their creative intellects, sowed the seed for my own creative, not original, series of commentary, futuristic, and personally humanistic tales. To demonstrate the relevance of what I am saying, as Mr. Serling would say in his on-camera Twilight Zone introduction, “I give you the following...”

...acknowledging one degree of separation between John Lennon of The Beatles, Rod Serling and myself through a solid, recently learned connection. That one degree was a Lebanese poet by the name of Khalil Gibran (1883 – 1931) who authored, The Prophet (1923), among many other writings, during his lifetime. The Prophet has sold over 100,000,000 copies since its first printing. It is now in its 163rd printing and still sells 5,000 copies per week.

In the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, “The Trade-Ins”, Mr. Serling closed by narrating in a voice over, the following quote:

“From Khalil Gibran's The Prophet: 'Love gives not but itself and takes not from itself, love possesses not nor would it be possessed, for love is sufficient unto love.' Not a lesson, just a reminder, from all the sentimentalists - in The Twilight Zone.”

In my fictional short story, “Across the Universe,” a creatively-frustrated John Lennon meets a muse who inspires him and sets him on his path to songwriting. At one point in their meeting, John has a vision of the female muse being his deceased mother, Julia.

In the song, “Julia”, from The Beatles (1968) (aka The White Album), Lennon penned the words:

”Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia.”

According to, that lyric"…was a slight alteration from Kahlil Gibran's "Sand and Foam" (1926) in which the original verse reads, ‘Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you’. Lennon also adapted the lines ‘When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind’ from Gibran's, ‘When life does not find a singer to sing her heart she produces a philosopher to speak her mind’ ".

Having not read Gibran’s work, I was unaware of the connection to these two “original” creative works. As a teenaged Beatles fan in 1968, listening to and enjoying the album was good enough and was as far as it went for me. And I was certainly too young six years prior to that, to have even considered the TZ episode being anything more than a cool television show and needed no further exploration (I did not become a polymath until I gained access to a set of encyclopedias in 1964).

I was unaware that the structure or layout of my book, a series of commentaries in the guise of short stories with self-rendered illustrations, was similar to Gibran’s The Prophet, as his deals with social topics and personal philosophies, too. (I am not equating or comparing myself to his views or writings) And it included his own illustrations, as well. I was also unaware that Serling and Lennon had used Gibran’s words as inspiration in works of their own. There was a lot I didn't know. I'm working on it.

The gap between the “borrowed inspiration” from the world of (visual) art and music and the “noted theft” world of academia was bridged. I am not saying that you can take my (or anyone else’s) writing, music, art and photographs, copy them and use them as your own. But you can build on all or any of that to create something of your own.

Because Gibran served as a “model to others”, Lennon and Serling, and because I have any and all of the world’s knowledge at the tip of my fingers, I will read Gibran – because I can – thereby, as one of Star Trek's Borg character's would say, "adding his uniqueness to my own."

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