Hey Creator: On Mixtapes, or Curation vs. Creation

One of my favorite things in the world is to create playlists. In my mind, there is no greater gift to another person. Back in the day, we used to call these “mixtapes,” as they were made of actual tape.

They could signify anything. A curation of acoustic ballads might say “I like you, do you like me?” while a pop-punk medley of breakup songs could be a reminder to delete this person’s number from your phone.

A good mixtape, in my mind, always has a theme. It builds towards an ultimate climax, then resolves. Every lyric must mean something, though rarely what the original artist intended. It is not just a curation but an interpretation.

The mixtape is personal, telling you as much about the one who made it as the one it’s made for. And it is eclectic, mixing in different styles that somehow fit together.

I love mixtapes because they are the perfect metaphor for creative work. With a mixtape, I have to use other people’s words, ideas, and stories to communicate my message. I am not dealing with my own source material, which is true for all of us.

We are always using someone else’s stuff, playing with what came before and rearranging it to say something new.

Take Jim Henson, for example. Throughout his career, he took special care to credit his childhood idol Burr Tillstrom for doing more to put puppets on television than the maker of the Muppets ever did. That’s coming from the man who invented Sesame Street and Yoda, mind you.

If Henson, who was affected significantly by the live puppet shows he saw as a traveling college student in Europe, cannot escape the influence of others, maybe we’d do well to notice the inspiration around us, too.

We are all borrowing from others

No artist works entirely in isolation. Even Vincent van Gogh, the iconic lone genius, was surrounded by others who inspired and influenced him. We all stand on the shoulders of giants* in hopes of honoring what we inherited and making it better.

Let’s not forget that Michelangelo’s very first commission was an actual forgery, a statue he pawned off on a cardinal who eventually discovered the deceit and was so impressed that he hired the young artist. Stealing is an innate and necessary part of the job, but the difference between the artist and the amateur is the former knows how to do it well.

With all due and deserved respect to Austin Kleon, it is not a creative thing to simply steal. Borrowing from others is inevitable; what makes a person an artist is what they choose to take and how. There are, after all, a lot of copycats out there, making noise without really saying anything. You don’t want to do that.

We don’t need more thieves; we need better thinkers

Take a minute to watch a handful of clips from Kukla, Fran, and Ollie on YouTube, and you’ll see that the work of Henson is much more sophisticated than that of his predecessor. And yet, without the work of the former, we would never have the latter. We all start out stealing, but the best artists don’t stay there.

An editor once told me when I wanted to include every obscure reference behind my book idea, “No one is paying to read that crap.” More precisely, they are paying to not read that crap. He told me to bury my esoteric ego-scratching in my endnotes, and only if absolutely necessary. But I’d be better off just deleting them altogether.

Curation is not the inclusion of every possible thing you could add; it is the exclusion of anything that doesn’t clearly convey your message. A good artist is recognized not in what she includes but in what she leaves out.

How to be an “original”

To be an “original,” you must first internalize your influences, then blend those voices in a way that we’ve never quite heard before. As the historian Will Durant said, “Nothing is new except arrangement. Give credit where credit is due, yes, but also find your way of expressing what others have shared before”.

The best creation is curation. It is a mix of styles and approaches. Your portfolio of work is your mixtape: a blend of old and new, a combination of what we expect and what we could never imagine.

It’s the work of any good student: a throwback, an homage, a portfolio. It is Jack White confessing all he ever did for rock music is try to play the blues, and Quentin Tarantino admitting to stealing the greatest tropes from cinema to make his own films.

Success in the Creator Economy is not so much about making something new as it is about sifting through what is already available and deciding which pieces get to come through. When we think of our work like this, it becomes less of a struggle to invent something unprecedented and instead a challenge in what to pay attention to.

So, what are you reading? Which influences are you allowing into your field of awareness, and what are you willing to let go? What’s distracting you, and what is that telling you about your work? What will you actually contribute to the conversation?

Hit reply and let me know. I look forward to listening.

Remixedly yours,

Jeff

* This quote is often attributed to Sir Isaac Newton but was first said by Blaise Pascal. Then again, maybe it was Diego de Estella. Or was it Bernard of Chartres? Anyway, there are a lot of rules 😉

“Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing… like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” —Rob Gordon (John Cusack) in High Fidelity, based on the novel by Nick Hornby (watch the twin scenes from the movie based on a book that also inspired a Hulu series)

From Patti Smith to Bob Dylan, some of music’s best lyrics are stolen directly from literature. (Should this be allowed?)

“An Italian visual artist recently sold an invisible sculpture for over $18,000.” It’s an original idea…but is it also fraud?

Advice from the NYT on how to make a great playlist. Plus, Buzzfeed can tell you what kind of dater you are based on the songs in your breakup playlist.

Where do pronouns come from? (The Atlantic)

Everything is a remix.

from the audience

I often find that other writers express ideas more succinctly. I usually “borrow” phrases from them. This is my concern. I do want to give credit where credit is due, but borrowing a word or phrase — I am not sure if it deserves a footnote every time I borrow. — Emmanuel

Emmanuel! You’re in great company. We writers are always inspired by the writing of our peers and heroes, and of course, this whole issue of HC is about borrowing as a means to creation. Consider the trendy “We can do hard things,” which took off on a global scale when Glennon Doyle’s Untamed came out in 2019.

She’d actually been saying it for 20 years by that point, and it’s not even her phrase to begin with, so do we need to cite her every time we repeat it? No. It’s part of common parlance these days—so much so that it’s shown up in Hillary Clinton’s Twitter feed, local governments’ responses to the pandemic, and approximately 500 Etsy search results for throw pillows. Similar phrases spring to mind:

kill your darlingssh*tty first draftstart with whyhero’s journeywhat I know for suregreat artists steal

We can all trace the source of these phrases without too much effort, AND they’re such an accepted part of our everyday communications that we’re safe to use them without adding footnotes every time. If these are the kinds of phrases you’re thinking of when you’re borrowing from others, know that a lot of other writers are doing it, too, and it’s fine.

That said, read that last sentence again: a lot of other writers are doing it, too, and it’s fine. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I imagine you want more for your writing than this.

Cliches are cliches for a reason. Did your breath catch in wonder reading any of those popular phrases up there? Did you see the world anew, feel inspired, sit up straighter, feel your chest explode into stars like it did the first time you read a beautiful sentence? If not, consider that this same deadness is happening in your readers when they see borrowed phrases in your work.

If they’ve read it before—even if it’s more succinct than you think you could’ve said it—their minds are going to wander, and they’re going to miss the chance to be truly changed by what you have to say. In their writing, they’re going to quote your heroes instead of you. And we will all miss out on what could’ve been.

Your readers are with you for your words, not someone else’s, so while I encourage and celebrate finding inspiration in others, I’ll also challenge you to bring more and more of your own voice to the conversation.

It doesn’t need to be more succinct to be better. It just needs to sound like you. When it does, watch your readers begin quoting you back to yourself, their mouths forming the shape of your words as they summon their own voices from the dark. You can be their lantern.

—Chantel

P.S. Have a question or thought you’d like us to tackle in a future issue? Send it to our community leader Sandy (sandy@goinswriter.com).

For your next writing session, long walk, or intellectual dinner party, Jeff made you a mixtape: Celebration of Curation

Jeff, the OG, who re-created literally everything about himself since the last time he sent out a newsletter. Like, even his guacamole recipe.

Chantel, the editor, who spends so much time reading articles on the internet that we had to collect them in a regular section of this newsletter.

Sandy, the community facilitator, who always knows exactly what y’all want to know. (Send her your questions for the next issue!)

Will, the marketing guru, who made sure you knew about this newsletter in time, and who also told us to be funnier.

Matt, the startup guy, who is smack-dab in the middle of living his dream as a full-time creator while discovering he’s still the same person, for better or worse.

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