Ideas don’t appear from nothing. At least, good ones do not. The highest order of perfection in thought is the amalgamation of the preceding ideas. As Steve Jobs was wont to say, “Creativity is just connecting things.” But ego gets in the way of combination creativity, and sometimes the selected parts are poorly ordered, structured, and made rendering the new idea less than its component parts.
In 1892, Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism. Her short story, “The Frost King” is similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” The twelve-year-old Keller was acquitted after an investigation and tribunal regarding the matter. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote Keller a letter regarding the issue of plagiarism.
The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.
As published in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that… No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own.
Of those who accused Helen Keller of Plagiarism, Twain said:
Why, their whole lives, their whole histories, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—
Theft alone will not create something useful. Creativity lies in the synthesis, an action that occurs between the ears. Be mindful where you’re learning from; be cognizant of what you make of it.