Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Make it New?

The other day, a student asked me--in light of all the literature, music, and film that's been made--how do we go about contributing anything new? Once my brain was done doing the Dance of Joy (which I learned off Perfect Strangers for whenever a student asks a serious and thought-provoking question), we sat down to try and hammer out an answer.

First, this brings to mind Ezra Pound's oft-quoted motto, Make It New, a concept so ubiquitous that one need not even know who Pound was (fascism and all) to get the idea. So I suppose the big question facing any modern writer/artist/filmmaker is, quite simply, what they mean by new. If the goal is simply to be stylistically unique, to write down something that has never been written before, that's easy. Anybody with an email account and a junk mail folder filled with deliberately eye-catching but syntactically gibberish spam messages knows what I'm talking about. On the other hand, if the goal is to come up with something both unique and effective--that is, effective in conveying content that can be basically anything but should at least transcend two dimensional capitalist impulses like buy this or click here--then it becomes a bit more tricky.

A bit, but not a lot--because we also have to remember that inevitably, we are unique amalgamations of every other writing style that we've ever seen and liked (or disliked) coupled with an equally unique equation of goals, motivations, humor, insecurities, quirks, idiocies, and spurts of brilliance. So to some degree, making it new simply means rebutting Ecclesiastes--there is nothing new under the sun--with the obvious: well, it's all new to me. All subjects, thoughts, acts, impulses, and passing fancies are fair game, whether we've previously read about them or not. So making it unique is "simply" a matter of refining your own aesthetic--your own style--and getting it down on paper, then polishing it to what you consider to be the best of your ability. From there, as far as readers and publishers go, we just let the chips fall where they may.

Along the way, though, there's the inevitable temptation (especially among intermediate writers) to be stylistically provocative--an oxymoron, I think, since stylistic disagreements never excite or offend half so much as disagreements over actual content. In other words, if style is the mouthpiece of content, obviously, you have to actually have content. Otherwise, you're kind of a dumbass.

Then again, in a world where even those living in industrialized countries in peacetime are still falling in and out of love, having breakdowns, and getting drunk to celebrate or anesthetize their senses, there's something fundamentally pathetic about a writer who has absolutely nothing to say and hinges completely on their ability to present a new style or play on words--which, without the burden/blessing of even the most seemingly mundane content, is really just a dancing bear act, anyway.


  1. Pound said "Make it new," but I don't think I would take his advice about this. I mean, does anybody willingly read Ezra Pound anymore?

    I think you get to the heart of it in your last paragraph. People want to read stuff that touches their hearts, their own experiences. They want to read a book or a poem that explains or helps to clarify what they've felt or thought.

    I think Whitman would be the guy I would go to for advice about this. I love his opening section of Song of Myself--with its advice to sing yourself because every atom belonging to you belongs to every other man and woman.

    Sing yourself and others will listen and sing back at you.

  2. Hi, John. It's ironic that you mention Whitman since I was originally trying to work in that famous answer from "O Me! O Life!" about the powerful play carrying on and how we may contribute a verse.