The Myth of the Original Author

When I was in high school, delusions of grandeur had an immense influence on my conception of writing. I thought that legendary authors like Poe, Hawthorne, and Rowling were examples of the truly original. Why not? They wrote alone, didn’t they? The greatest realization that my college experience has produced has been that no author, no matter how legendary, ever writes alone. I believe Metaphors We Live By provides excellent fodder for an examination of what it really means to be a writer. It portrays exactly how much borrowing a writer really does.

Metaphors We Live By postulates that metaphors are everywhere. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson assert that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (3). But wait, our kind authors tell us later. That was just the warm up act. The pair write, “In actuality we feel that no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis” (Lakoff and Johnson 19). Since metaphors are everywhere and they cannot be utilized realistically without an experiential basis, both metaphor and experience are everywhere. This seems rather reasonable; after all, every action we do or do not take results in an experience. Still, that is not all. Lakoff and Johnson proceed to inform us that “it would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our ‘world’ in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself” (57). Now our authors insist that there is no experience without cultural influence. Since metaphor always requires an experiential basis to be effective and every experience in culturally influenced, culture is everywhere just like metaphors and experiences are. If cultural influences have an extremely notable impact on our thoughts and words, it seems preposterous to me to think of any writing as truly original.

Since Lakoff and Johnson write about metaphors, I will use a painfully extended figurative metaphor to illustrate how I now feel about the writer’s role in the process of a composition’s creation. A man is trying to construct a brick wall. Before he can begin, he will need the mortar, bricks, and other assorted equipment vital to his task. He cannot proceed without them, and he does not work in a quarry, a factory, or any of the other places that play a large or small role in providing him with the necessary equipment for his task. He does not even have the equipment needed to transport the building equipment to him. If he does have the necessary building equipment, what he can do with it is limited. The wall has to be built to fulfill certain parameters or it will have to be torn down and reproduced by a more competent builder. The worker still makes choices; he determines how much mortar to put between the bricks and the pattern that the brickwork follows. Some choices will result in a better looking product and some will result in a more lasting product. If the builder is particularly accomplished, his wall might be both attractive and long lasting.

Like the builder constructing a brick wall, writers start with a large supply of equipment. We have letters and the vocabulary of our languages, work of other authors, memory of experiences, metaphorical frameworks, ingrained cultural teachings on a nearly endless number of subjects, and demands from readers and relevant discourse communities to guide and control us. If we don’t have this equipment transported to us through education and experience, then the writing task will be difficult or even impossible to do well. The product has to meet expectations when completed as well. If my blog post reads like it should be in an instruction manual from the 19th century, no will bother to read it and readers will find a better writer to entertain them. Writers still have some choices; they get to decide how all the materials they have been provided with should be put together. They can have priorities about whether to write to elicit positive responses from modern audiences or to create a composition that they will take academic pride in when it is completed. Talented writers may be able to simultaneously satisfy both objectives.

Nevertheless, a writer who is bound to the conventions and influences of the day is not original. He or she merely puts what already exists together in a new way. As a writer, I don’t find this reality particularly flattering. It would seem a lot more heroic to be a lone writer standing as the distinguished creator of a new kind of discourse and rhetoric. However, such a view is not a realistic one. That is not to say that writers are not important or valuable; after all, no one wants to live in a house whose walls were constructed by an untrained and uninterested novice. However, writers are still just workers like a great many others who struggle to produce something of worth for themselves and others.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Original Author

  1. chutson says:

    Writing is such a paradoxical activity. On one hand, it can be a solitary event–at some point along the creation process (well, if you’re me), you lock yourself in your bedroom, turn off internet capabilities and cellphone, stick some headphones in, and get some writing done. But if you ever want your writing seen and read, at some point it’s got to go beyond you. The fiction classes I have taken have heavily emphasized that however unique your own writing, you are writing within a larger community, that other writing is going to influence yours,and that you have to pay attention to what else is going on out there.

    The same discussion on whether writing is individual has come up in previous writing, rhetoric, and literature classes of mine. And I think that if you look at ‘individual’ in the terms that you have in your post, then no, writing is not individual. And like you, I struggled with that for a long time. When we are alone and writing, we feel that this is a unique piece of us, that there is nothing that has ever been like it, and nothing ever will be.

    My answer to your problem is that writing is never wholly independent and unique, yet it is never wholly just based on what has come before, or a copycat. Our writing is unique in the fact that even if someone wrote on the same exact topic with the same information available, it would still be different from the product we would come up with. Which I think at least gives up something as far as trying to make our mark and say something different to the world. I think maybe that it is a compromise that we writer’s just have to accept, that we are both solitary and yet a part of a much wider tradition and activities that span pretty much all of written history.

  2. kjnicholas says:

    While the concept of the lone writer may be more romantic than your metaphorical builder, I actually think it lends writers credibility that we don’t do it alone.

    Because we must “build” off the work of those before us and access contemporary events (whether those be ideas, cultural shifts or some other activity) it means the work we produce cannot be isolated only to ourselves. Writing in community ensures that the writing we produce will hold some interest to others in our culture. Now whether it appeals to enough people or is well-crafted is another matter, but the positive aspect of not generating ideas out of nothing means we employ concepts that are important to others beside ourselves. As a writer, I’m relieved that’s the case.

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