In high school, like so many other adolescent fools, I took a psychology course. And one bright day the teacher gave us all this “test.” On the test paper were four rows of boxes, four columns wide, and each box except one had some kind of mark within. A tiny dark box, a semi-circle, a staright line, a wavy line, and so on. The instructions were, as you may have guessed, to draw a picture in each box incorporating those previously made marks. Afterwards we were given the interpetations of our art. Hence we revealed our personalities–everything about you captured on a mimeograph sheet.
I was so taken with this that I took a copy to my mom, who happily went along and drew in every square. Now my boxes were much like every other teenage girl’s boxes. At least, I don’t remember what I drew, but I do remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw my mother’s drawings. Hers were lively and imaginative–mine were predictable and dull. But to this day, one thing about her drawing I can see in my mind as if it were yesterday instead of 22 years ago. She drew a fish that was leaping from one box to another.
Oh, who cares? A silly fish with water splashing and a waving tail. But I was struck by her drawing in the margins (for the love of all that is holy I’m not going to say that ridiculous overused line about boxes and being somewhere else other than in them). I’d stayed in the lines. She’d looked at those boxes and seen how to carry one image from one to another. To me this meant my mother had IMAGINATION, that she was ORIGINAL, that she had TALENT. Since such daring (hey, it was daring to me–she wasn’t following the rules, after all) was lacking in my picture…well, I didn’t like my picture at all anymore.
Now when someone gives me a similar test or task or some such, I think of that damn fish, and I wonder if I’m looking at the task the way my mom would. But then if I manage to come up with something that might be (MIGHT) equal to that fish (and I haven’t even mentioned the flowers she drew that spilled down the page), I also think–it isn’t really my idea at all. It is still hers. The image in my head is only possible because she thought of the fish first–and therefore it is not really an original idea.
But don’t we all take ideas from others? Are there any original ideas left? I’ve read that are only seven stories in the world and we telll them again and again in a thousand ways. And as I struggle with this creative life I wonder if I have an original thought hidden away somewhere and with enough scribbling I can find it. But why is it so important?
I’ve certainly got that fish hidden somewhere. Maybe I’ll dig it out and frame it–then it will definitely be in a box.