The Original Fish

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.

8 thoughts on “The Original Fish

  1. New to your blog and so happy to have found you.
    Your writing is evocative and rich. So captivating.
    And this post about the fist and the box and no new original ideas? Simply stunning. That image of the fish will stay with me for some time to come.

  2. But… your mother’s ideas are your ideas. That’s what parents are. They’re SUPPOSED to do exactly what she did, and you’re supposed to do exactly what you did. When someone opens a door for you, walking through it isn’t plagiarizing the door, isn’t taking advantage of someone else’s work, isn’t being derivative from the fact that the door was opened.

    It’s not about the literal fish, it’s about transgressing, boundaries, and the thing about the box that we don’t want to say. She showed you something — she probably showed you MANY things — when you pick up a book and read, you’re not imitating your mother, although your mother probably loved reading and showed you that reading was cool. You know? Having trouble articulating this.

  3. Just make sure that at some point you do the whole fish/flower demonstration with your kids too. Then they can think back on how they’re really imitating YOU! *cackle* 😀 😀 😀

  4. This reminds me of the creation of literature. Can we say we are no longer endowed with new ideas since a subject, like world war, or loss of memory, have been written about and explored over and over again by previous authors? I think as long as we look at the world with our own mind and interpretation, the ideas will come off afresh.

    Thanks for sharing a lovely patch of memory. 🙂

  5. Thanks Isabel for finding me. I love the name Isabel…(I had an Aunt Isabel who didn’t like the name and chose instead to go by the name Betty. I can’t even begin to understand that…)

    And Lydia I think you’ve articluated just fine. Thanks for the thoughts and I agree with you–in theory. It’s hard to apply sensible thinking to one’s self. Oh, my poor child!

    And aother thanks to Matt. I try to remember that a sstory may not be new to the world, but it is new to somebody.

  6. Imagination is overrated. Ideas are dead. When what comes out of you is only you that is called original. It’s also called Marta. Just write.

  7. Well, if I think of Postmodernism as a theory, applying what I know of it through media to English Literature then you’re absolutely right in musings – there is no such thing as originality, everything is borrowed, a mixture of everything we have watched, read and talked about.
    If I combine that with my own beliefs then I think that whilst a story may be compiled of things you’ve seen, inspiration from this movie or concepts from that book – even loosely based – then it is original, just in a morphed way. Due to the fact that your perception is different from mine then we could set out to write the same thing, and use some of the same ideas and still come out with something different. Your translation of things already used makes that thing original again.

    • I like that. They are original. But they are not. No matter the idea and how many times it has been thought before, it has never before been thought by me in my way.

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