Originality in fiction writing is often measured through the strength of metaphors, ideas, adjectives and form: ways of conveying something that is more than could be told in plain everyday language (though of course, everyday language is often used to great effect in great fiction; just see any or all of Ali Smith’s work). Originality in non-fiction is harder to measure. Of course, originality of ideas comes into it, as does writing style: reasons why many of my favourite writers consider non-fiction to fall within the remit of that awful phrase ‘creative writing’. But recently I’ve come to understand that a big part of non-fiction’s strength and originality comes from the careful curating of a selection of relevant and arresting exempla. And it’s this, as a budding non-fiction writer, that has finally driven me away from Tumblr, a website where I’ve lurked since 2009.
Some background is necessary to fully understand why Tumblr is so uniquely unsuited to the non-fiction writer, I think. Operating as a kind of online diary/scrapbook, the website allows the easy posting of any quotations, photographs, and links that the poster finds memorable to a central timeline. I used my Tumblr as an online scrapbook for ideas, often tagged under similar themes, and then would write pieces assembled from these ideas and my responses to them – the essay as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. Much effort went into this curating, and I mostly posted for myself, though I admit falling into the trap more and more of late of trying to curate the perfect self: perfect scholar, perfect twenty-something, perfect aesthete. Mostly, however, I was posting only for the ease of storage, and for the occasional personal post to communicate with a network of online friends/followers (I’m growing less and less confident now in these distinctions).
It was a confluence of two circumstances that drew me to this bittersweet awakening. Two months ago, the sheer wealth of wide-ranging references in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost and Wanderlust forced a recognition of just how crucial this ability to dip one’s hand into the cauldron of the past and collage the results is for the non-fiction writer. Secondly, not long later, the appearance of a work featuring a number of references I recognised intimately from my own timeline and personal posts shot me through like a lead arrow. I cried for a long week. And it was doubly painful because, mostly, I blamed myself. As a non-fiction writer and as a budding academic, your reading and your unique thoughts are your currency. I really mean this. Employability is based on publishing, and publishing is contingent upon originality, and originality is not compatible with a life shared online. Though I believe entirely in the dissemination of knowledge, I want to succeed as a writer, and that requires a certain level of silence in advance of publication, especially when the lines dividing inspiration and plagiarism are so shady as in the case of references (creative plagiarism is far less uncertain, though it is also very painful). This is why writers don’t publish half-finished drafts, and can rarely be coaxed to say more than a sentence describing an unfinished work. It’s why many academics are very cagey about sharing precisely the focus of their work prior to publishing, though sharing some work is now of funding benefit. It’s why the lot at Bloomsbury were sworn to secrecy in advance of the final Harry Potter book. The work needs to stand alone. I understand this now. The collecting and curating processes must remain a secret.
I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of saint of the Internet. I’ve definitely come across ideas others have collected, and I’ve been shaped by them. I’m convinced now, though, that the collection and curating of references is such a crucial part of a non-fiction work’s originality that we have to be careful about sharing the pre-essay process; or at least, we have to learn to acknowledge our sources better. When a friend skims an article I’ve written, pre-publication, and leaves me unacknowledged while lifting references for her own acknowledged work – what’s to be done? What’s fair? Where is the ethical line? Similarly, when I find myself unconsciously looking to draw second-hand references from Solnit’s work for my own, I’m making sure to stop myself now, and at least to remember to acknowledge that these dots were not drawn first by myself. It’s tough. I’m in love with the wide dissemination of ideas Tumblr has made possible – but I’m also a little scared of participating in it myself, from the position of an as-yet un-established writer.
So, for the time being, I’m officially defunct. Ish.