No, You Can’t Reinvent the Wheel, But…

In his comedy special “New In Town” John Mulaney remarks that the satisfaction of cancelling plans is akin to using heroin. Having never used heroin myself, I can neither confirm nor deny the validity of this statement; I can however affirm that I love not doing things. I’m a homebody through and through, and I can’t remember any time in my existence where I would rather be out and about doing something instead of staying at home in comfort. This pandemic-induced quarantine hasn’t been that hard on me as a result (and I am well aware how privileged I am to be able to say that), although there has been significantly more drinking than normal. But, not going out isn’t the nugget of wisdom drawn from this pedantic introduction. Just as easy as it is to cancel plans and do nothing, it is just as easy to convince yourself that not composing a song or writing a story is the right move because, I’m sure we’ve all heard this refrain one time or another, “everything’s been done before!”

In another comedy special, “What” (I really like comedy specials), Bo Burnham has a punchline in a song that goes like this: “art is a lie, nothing is real.” I then saw this punchline plastered about small art galleries and internet forums in response to countless artistic endeavors and creative attempts. No doubt the would-be comics thought rehashing this joke was pure farcical genius, but not only was their originality a sham from the start, it was a sham for almost all of recorded history. Mark Twain, Shakespeare, the writer of Ecclesiastes; all these authors lamented at the lack of originality in life. From the ancient Near East to the modern art gala, it’s hard to see a world in which anyone has an original artistic idea. And, clearly, I agree with these people who are far smarter and more experienced than I. Every idea I’ve had is the product of something else’s influence whether I’m aware of this fact or not. It would be silly to delude myself otherwise.

Since I started it, I have absolutely loved school. The routine, the clear goals, obtaining more knowledge—it’s a dream scenario for me. However, my life became hamstrung when I reached college. As I read more and wrote more, I realized that what I had to say was never as good as what had already been said. Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman have done the damn thing better than I could ever hope for. This continued in my graduate work—I quickly realized that Brevard Childs I was not and could never be. And then, as I’m sure many before me have experienced (even our existential dread is not original), I asked myself “why?” Why should I bother doing any of this? Why should I research topics, write articles, and explore possibilities when every article, topic, and possibility has been explored and examined in a thousand ways better than I could ever explore them? The answer came from two avenues: a dear friend and a heavily tattooed chef. 

First, I was over lunch lamenting to my compatriot about the futility in research that I felt. How was I not doomed to a life of simply rehashing the ideas of those far more brilliant than I? He so graciously passed on a piece of advice he received while thinking about PhD studies and having doubts amounting to the same questions that I had:

Everything may have been written, sure, but only you can write what you’re going to write. No one else can do that but you.

More recently my second major revelation on the subject came from Matty Matheson during episode four of his podcast, “Powerful Truth Angels” (around the fifty-five minute mark), when he said, “You can’t recreate the wheel, but you can paint it any color you want.”

Perhaps these two specks of advice sound cliché in the eternal ocean of motivational speech which floats about the aether today, but I’ve found this way of thinking has had a profound effect on my desire to write, create and explore areas of interesting research.

Bo Burnham might be right—art is kind of dead. And Mark Twain hits the nail on the head—there’s no such thing as originality. However, there is certainly only one me. And there is, certainly, only one you. Biologically, we all may be cut from the same cloth and rather distant from any idea of “uniqueness,” but much like fingerprints, our creative endeavors will also have lines and specks of unreproducible matter that is distinctly us. We all have our own unique thoughts and feelings, and no two people painting the same source material or writing about the same event will produce two finished products which are exactly the same. Realizing the value in your own thoughts and contributions, in tandem with realizing the value of everyone else’s unique contributions to the world of art, will set you free on a path to fearlessly say what you have to say in your way and to paint the wheel whatever colors you think the wheel should be painted. We must always keep in mind that it’s always easiest to convince ourselves not to do something, and that art may in fact be dead. But we’re not. And as long as we’re alive, well, we have something worth putting out there. I guess all that’s left is for you, and for me, to do it.