Let’s face it. Almost nothing is truly original. Writing, or any form of creativity for that matter, is nothing but creative stealing and recombining other people’s ideas that have inspired you along the way. Because of this, we need to source good material to steal and loot from. Importantly, high quality loot is likely to lead to higher quality creative output than lower quality loot, or even worse, having no loot at all.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we need to massively commit acts of plagiarism. Far from it. But is there anything wrong with ‘borrowing’ a certain sense of style, certain proze, or even recombining (parts of) ideas from others? In the end, as an author I used to read quite regularly some years ago, quite excellently put it: ‘creativity is where ideas have sex’. He probably also stole that from someone else. Nevertheless, he managed to communicate this idea to me and likely to many others, and I still use this advice almost every day. I mix and match quite a lot, and I think it is a very useful skill in academia. For example, when I read about a cool concept, I often automatically think to myself, ‘how can I link it with another relevant concept and make it even cooler?’ Admittedly, nothing ever comes of it, because I drop most ideas for lack of time and in a way a lack of confidence in my own ideas, but nevertheless it is a fun practice that one day may result in something more concrete. In a different, but similar form, I also like to mix and match at the people level. As in, a person works on concept X, let’s introduce them to this other person that works on concept Y that may be relevant to them. This has thus far been mostly linking undergraduates to people that they may click with, but as I’m slowly climbing up the group leader ladder, I hope to continue and use this concept with the people that I work with and the students that I supervise.
Good. So we need to steal if we want to improve at the creative level. I have prioritized writing lately. However, something I repeatedly bump into, is that my English sucks. I mean, it doesn’t really suck all that hard, but still, I do not incorporate awesome proze into my writing as much as other (often native) writers do. I hate it that my writing reads like an eight year-old child’s Father’s Day poem. I notice this regularly when I’m writing up manuscripts with my great friend and former supervisor Jeff, who’s a Canadian that (to me) is a lead expert not only in parasitoid biology and plant-insect ecology, but also at vomiting wonderful and beautiful words onto paper. Alright, he has about 25 years of experience on me, too, but still. I just regularly notice that my vocabulary could be so much better in many regards.
So, the more I write, the more I realize that in order to get better I need to not only write more, but also read more. I got to loot my vocabulary from somewhere.
When it comes to amazing science and non-fiction writing, if you ask me, nobody beats Carl Zimmer. I discovered this guy only two years ago, when my friend Maddy gifted me his book ‘She has her mother’s laugh’, when I was about to become father. This book explores the history and science of heredity as we know it today and for some reason I could just not put this book down. His descriptions of scientific ‘stuff’, as well as the history surrounding it are just brilliant. I felt sad to have reached the final page. I immediately bought several of his other works on Kindle, which Amazon decided to confiscate when I moved to Germany and linked my German account to my old (American) account. I felt reluctant to buy them on Kindle again for reasons not related to Zimmer. Instead, I read a lot of his writing (including several of his pieces covering the Covid-19 pandemic and the rocky road to herd immunity). Of course, when his new title ‘Life’s Edge‘ was announced, I could not wait to buy it. But this time in good old paper format! Although I may seem an advocate of stealing, I don’t like Amazon to steal from me… I’m a hypocrite like that.
I just read the first four pages to my 1,5 year-old son, and he seemed to love it too! I can’t wait to start it, and already know that prioritizing time will not be very difficult this time.
Not that you will ever read this, but thanks, Carl Zimmer, for improving my writing, and allowing me to ‘steal’.