October 17 (The old man’s birthday), and A Brief Discourse on Originality

the old man’s birthday —
all day the tree
quietly sheds leaves


It’s my grandfather’s ninety-fifth birthday. He’s happy and healthy, and got to go to a big party yesterday in his honor. I am hoping that if I live so long, it’s with such grace.

After I had written this I realized that it reminded me of the first four lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 73. And I suppose it is a cliche, um, I mean, a universal literary theme, to use falling leaves as a metaphor for old age. Still … there are always new ways to say things, right? Right?

Sigh. Sometimes the burden of trying to be original seems way too heavy. Why am I doing this anyway? Hasn’t someone else, of the billions of human beings past and present, already said everything I want to say, better than I can?

I try to think of ways to startle fresh utterance out of myself. Wake myself up, or send myself into a dream. Spin myself around, or achieve perfect stillness. Babble nonsense until a gem of insight emerges. Methodically revise until the trite becomes brilliant. Climb a mountain and watch everything I know shrink and become insignificant. Step into a cold lake and let the shock briefly stop my heart. Sit in a dark cave for a while and then light a match. Read everything. Read nothing. Break something I love and step on the shards with bare feet. Build something and feel it growing more solid beneath my hands. Grow up. Act like a child. Scream uncontrollably. Say nothing, nothing at all, and listen as hard as I can.

I have to go do homework right now, though. I can feel the originality draining out of me, to be replaced by the list of definitions I must memorize for my cataloging exam. Unless I can find some way of making haiku out of them. Stay tuned for further details.


Hey, remember to send me haiku for my 300th post.

15 thoughts on “October 17 (The old man’s birthday), and A Brief Discourse on Originality

  1. sometimes i find letting go of the rules is a good way to think outside of what has already been done. i think shotgun writing, where i dont stop to think, or put it in sentence forms also makes connections that are outside of normal mind think. you just dont stop writing. and from that, you then cull ideas. i think there are other ways to get at it too.

    one of the things that can never exist as i understand it, is another you. so getting at the you-ness of you – in therory – should lead to or show up in original you work – eventually.

    …that’s my hope at least… at least for right now. . . i mean, if i get to be more and more me, then my work will have more me-ness in it and be less likely to be like anything anyone else does, or has done.

    of course… if that really happens there is the risk that no one will know what to think about it at all either – not even me, because we wont have ever seen anything like it or have anything to compare it to… ..i mean… if it’s really like nothing else that has ever been done..

    . . . may be we just have to go through a lot of what has already been done to get to our own self and see with our own eyes rather than the eyes of all the world that has gone on before us… ???

    (i’m having difficulty with my net connection – so i’m not getting around to blogs much right now. …not that i get around a lot any way, because i am such a slow reader – i’m not sure what the 3ooth post haiku is completely supposed to be about as i havnt read that one… altho i do remember a 200th post at one time. but you know… i’ll send something if i am able to do so.)

    big moon
    the sky has become small
    in my old age

    • The problem is that it can be hard to discover one’s own you-ness underneath all the layers of other-people-ness that one absorbs by being bombarded with other people’s words all day. 🙂 I do agree, though, that not thinking can be a good way to get at something fresh…

      No worries, drop by when you can, always nice to see you. 🙂 (The 300th post thing is just another “send me your haiku and I’ll post them instead of mine for a change to give you all a break.” It’s coming up on Sunday. You can send me something new, or I can pick a couple from the several dozen you’ve sent me already and put those up. 🙂 )

  2. If you ask me about saying something original, I’ll immediately respond with: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” These days, I feel it’s a lot more about how you say things versus what you say. That being said, what you say is pretty damned important, but it’s how you present it that gets it noticed.

    I secretly have a growing pile of haiku that I call “cheap literary knock-offs.”

    • I guess I think of content and style as being intertwined to a greater extent than than — yeah, there are no new human emotions or experiences, but there are fresh insights on them and they can be expressed in new ways … it’s hard to know where to draw the line between what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

      I too am the queen of literary imitation. I’m about to write a novel for NaNoWriMo and I’m pretty sure it’s going to sound exactly like Jonathan Franzen whose new novel I just finished. If only I were just a little better at it so I too could make the best-seller list and the front page of the NYT Book Review. 🙂

      • It’s not to say that content and style are intertwined. You need the appropriate content with the appropriate style. With the way the world is changing, I think new perspectives crop up all the time, and there are new stories to be told. However, I feel most stories boil down to a fundamental idea or two (which creeps upon the monomyth). It’s the editor side of me, I suppose, who is much more focused on logic and examining the core of things. My writer side is much more, flail about and get frustrated, wonder what’s the point of it all, etc.

        I admire you for tackling Nanowrimo. I’ve always wanted to, but my schedule/responsibilities/school has never allowed it (part of the curse of being a writing major, I think). I’m writing a novella as part of my senior honors project, though due to the form and craft of it, I wonder if it could even be written in a month if I had everything planned out. Maybe if I had nothing else to do… Fighting for time is the biggest hurdle.

        • “The appropriate content with the appropriate style” … that’s it exactly. Whenever I’m writing anything new I find the most important thing is to nail the tone and then the thing practically writes itself — the content seems somehow to come out of the tone rather than the other way around. The problem is nailing the tone … There is a quotation from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters that I have kept in mind for over twenty years now, which goes something like, “It’s a constant struggle to maintain a tone. The problem is I never know exactly which tone I am trying to maintain.” Which floors me, because how many writers have as distinctive and consistent a tone as O’Connor? If she found it difficult what hope is there for the rest of us …

          I don’t have time for Nano either but I think that’s kind of supposed to be the point of it. You don’t have time but you do it anyway, just to get over the hump of “oh I want to write but I don’t have time/don’t know what to write about/can’t write well enough.” Of course, you sound like you’re doing plenty of writing on your own and don’t really need encouragement, so it’s probably superfluous for you.

          • Your comment about Flannery O’Connor takes me back to my writing theory class. I distinctly remember my professor telling me that we write out of confusion–we write to figure something out, to discover. (Her biggest worry for me personally was that I would figure out my answer, then no longer be motivated to write. She hit my disposition dead on the nail.) So I wouldn’t say that we’re all in trouble necessarily. We write both because we love it and it’s a challenge. At least, it’s why I write haiku. Tanka, though I know the form, I don’t write often because I don’t feel as challenged by it, so I get bored with it. Haiku challenges me to no end, and thus, I keep writing to attempt to come to a better understanding of it, probably much in the way O’Connor kept searching for, and struggling to maintain, the right tone. That’s my two cents anyway.

            I attempt to bend class writing to my will as much as possible, but what appeals to me about Nanowrimo is that the projects haven’t much to do with anything other than “I have an idea” or “I want to write.” I suppose it is a bit superfluous when I’m already juggling three major writing projects. Though I do often get a lot of funny looks/people brush off what I’m doing during that month. Makes me feel a bit left out. Ha.

            • Hmmm…I don’t know if I write to figure something out. Although, of course, I frequently do figure things out when I write. Mostly I write because it’s fun, and I can. But I do have to say that this whole haiku thing is burning a hole in my brain in that “I MUST figure out how to do this right” way, which I’ve never really gotten with any other form. I agree that tanka don’t do the same thing for me at all. Actually, I’ve never even been tempted to write one, because I hardly ever even read one that I particularly like. They just seem like haiku with way too many syllables to me. 🙂

              • I took a tanka writing roundtable about a year ago. While not a huge fan (I appreciate Saigyo, and as for modernists, Takuboku, and for the English Bob Lucky), admittedly understanding tanka has aided my understanding of haiku since they’re related forms (and if you follow the history, haiku evolved out of tanka with the process of waka >> renku >> renga >> hokku >> haiku). It’s made me more attentive to my word choice in a lot of ways.

                For the most part, I’m not a fan of the overt emotion that goes into tanka. While it can still be subtle, I like more how haiku are heavy on implying emotion. Even if the poem is subjective, the presentation of the moment is objective. And the challenge of not stating emotion is far more intriguing to me.

                • I should probably pay more attention to tanka, but as you say, it often seems overly sentimental to me — I’m always mentally rewriting it into haiku, leaving the images and taking out the glop (highly technical term I like to use to denote “extraneous emotion I don’t like in poetry”).

                  I do love renku, also a big step in the development of haiku — I could see myself getting obsessed with it in the same way I am obsessed with haiku. It’s like, I don’t know, 3-D haiku, involving mind reading, juggling, and magic tricks. (Michael Dylan Welch and I once had a little conversation about it being like sudoku or cryptic crosswords.) Maybe next year … once I have finished my commitment to write a haiku a day for a year …

                  • Well, that does make sense, since a tanka is more or less a haiku with some additional insight into the poet’s personal emotions. It has its form and place, and I do get some published on occasion, but it’s not something I’m dedicated to mastering.

                    In general, I dabble in a little bit of all the forms, or at least try. Renku is great in groups, or even over email (I’ve done some rengay over instance messenger). The social aspect of it sometimes feels more about the experience to me than the form itself.

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