The way I see it, you get one or two good ideas. That’s it. Maybe three if you’re special or well-bred or whatever. Original ideas, I mean. Ones that could matter. No one cares if you have a brilliant idea to dye your hair or give your life to Jesus or start selling drugs. I’m talking ideas ideas. Not decisions. Ideas.
Everything else is copying. Someone said that. Rosalind Krauss, maybe. Everything is a copy, and sure, it’s more than that, most of life is you putting your super-special gold star sticker on other people’s ideas and calling it your own, but that’s nothing new or profound. If a stranger heard your gold-starred idea, or the thousands or millions of other people who also copied that idea from the thousands or millions of other people who copied that idea from the one or two or hundred people who first came up with the idea, they wouldn’t give a shit about yours. It’s just another repeat. Die Hard 435. Mario Party 10,000. Air Bud: Ping Paws.
Now, I’m not saying those things aren’t worthwhile. Who gives a shit about that stranger? You’re making your super-special copy matter to your people and your place and your time, and that’s most of what life is, and that’s important. I’m not knocking that. All I’m saying is that’s a different thing than what I’m talking about right now.
You get one or two good ideas of your own, and that’s it. That’s all you get to work with, and you can either beat your ass like some self-flagellating monk to make something with that idea, or you can leave it alone and keep on copying. No shame either way, at least not from me. Well, maybe a little from me. But if I knew you and if you found your one good idea and made it work, I’d hate you for it and tell myself you missed the real joy of life or something, so maybe I’m just looking for any excuse to feel better than other people. I heard somewhere that jealousy is not wanting you to have something good, and envy is wanting me to have that good thing, too. I’d feel both, but probably more the jealousy. That’s just biblical. No one likes a prophet from their own hometown. I copied that from Jesus. He probably copied it, too.
Back to ideas. I’m getting sidetracked. An idea changes things. The zeitgeist and all that, which is a German word I finally looked up a few weeks ago. Those one or two good ideas change how people think and live and want to live, like how Marx and Engels made revolutions and wars and utopias and arguments, and how Susan Sontag talked about AIDS metaphors, and how John Steinbeck kept writing about the idea of home in all his books. Sometimes they break the world for a little while. Sometimes they make things better. Sometimes no one notices until decades later, or never. Probably mostly that last one. But it’s new—MAKE IT NEW said Ezra Pound, but new-ness isn’t all that great in and of itself, as other people with other one or two good ideas talked about later, but I don’t know enough to even copy those ideas other than what I just said right here.
Okay, yes. Yes. I know. That ripped the bag open on this soggy monologue and beans dribbled out all over the sidewalk and no one’s moving because that first step is going to slip on those beans and I’m going to fall and crack my neck. None of these good ideas are actually all that new or good or profound. Really, they’re just another gold-star sticker. They’re harder and bigger and awkward to hold, and it’s really just a matter of scale that makes them special. Or something. It’s like the Supreme Court and porn. Cut me some slack, here. You get it, don’t you? You get one or two good-er ideas.
Another clarification, because why the hell not. I like the sound of my own voice as much as anyone. Maybe a little more. Okay, for sure a little more. Here’s the clarification: Some people don’t get any good ideas. Some people get lots. Maybe. Or maybe those people are just better copiers. Maybe they just copy so well or copy things so old that no one else knows they’re copying. But for sure some people are just born dumb. No, dumb people can have good ideas, so scratch that. Wrong word. Some people are just born… un-in-spired. That sounds clinical enough that no one will act offended on behalf of someone else, which is very fashionable. No one really gets offended for themselves. They just get sad, which is what real offense means. Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll let that rabbit go.
I think even people who act like they have all sorts of ideas, like Einstein or Marilynne Robinson or Mozart, really just have one or two or maybe three good-er ideas but that idea is so big or so different or so old that they can mine down into that thing like some renegade boring machine that leaves behind all sorts of novelties that no else remembers seeing before but they’re really all just tailings from that one deep hole. Let’s mix metaphors, because George Orwell didn’t know everything and times change, anyway. It’s like beheading Medusa. Sure, Einstein beheaded a ton of snakes, but he just decapitated one Greek god. Or monster. I can’t keep them straight. And, sure, Einstein probably skipped over the good-er qualification and really did have a good idea. The sciences can get away with stuff like that.
Someone in the desert once told me to try and peak when you’re sixty-five, and I think he was talking about the one or two good ideas. It takes time to grow those things. He thought it did, anyway. But that’s an awful lot to gamble. You can copy and live life or just smoke weed and hang out, and your good ideas never go anywhere. But maybe you never had any good idea potential to start with, so you just saved yourself a decade or two and a coffin of disappointment. You gotta appreciate the people who stuck it out, though. The people who aren’t just blogging and Facebooking and Instagramming all their half-baked thoughts and feelings and positions that they take more for social capital than any thought-out thinking. Not that there’s anything automatically bad about social media, mind you. It’s just that so many people use it like idiots, and they use it to distract themselves from hard things, and most people’s ideas aren’t all that interesting unless you know them.
I’m not making some big point. This—this right here—isn’t a good idea. It’s only interesting if you know me, and even then you’d be better reading off Rosalind Krauss or Marilynne Robinson or talking to that guy who lives in the desert. People spend so much damn time obsessing about their friends’ gold-star copies of the same ten or twenty or hundred ideas that their other friends obsess about, and they don’t give a shit about the good-er, harder ideas you have to dig for. That sounds edgy. I’m so smart, I like real ideas, listen to me. But when everyone’s talking about Nike shoes and police and soldiers and they use the same asinine talking points and like and retweet not-so-pithy one-liners to make so damn sure you know they’re on the right side, who cares? It doesn’t matter anyway. No one’s listening—no more than what it takes to figure out their own better response, anyway—and you probably don’t actually care either, other than what referencing some dead person’s good-er idea does for your own social capital in whatever weird niche group gives a shit about it.
You get one or two good ideas, and I’m with that guy in the desert—I think they take a lot of work. I think people with good ideas chew on those things like a cow. They pass it back and forth between four stomachs. They throw it up and eat it again. No one wants to see or hear about that process, unless someone else sanitizes it into a super-special gold-star documentary or something, and even if the good idea works out, I can’t imagine there’s a whole lot of long-term gratification in it. If their cow-food idea was so hard for them to digest, it’s gotta be even harder for other people to swallow after it plops out. And that’s best-case. You might find out in ten years that what you thought was one of your precious, ten-year-digestion good ideas was really just a copy of someone else’s barf that you mangled into something so convoluted and ugly that it only seemed complicated because no one else could understand you. Like trying to recite Faulkner from memory while gagged and you also have the hiccups. But really, if we get down to it, my money’s on no one caring. Most good-er ideas like that don’t make money, and they aren’t fun, and to be honest, they don’t really change anything. Find a way to make money. That’s what matters in this zeitgeist.
You get one or two good ideas. Everything else is gold-star copy. It’s probably better to work on coping. Just live, man. Soak it all in. Live, love, laugh. Or—better plan—don’t fucking live by Facebook platitudes and try to actually copy well. That’s hard enough. What’s that quote? If you’re brilliant, you create something new. If you’re smart, you recognize what’s worthwhile and copy it. That’s a hack butchering job, but you get the gist. It’s hard enough to copy well, and trying to dredge up one or two good ideas that just aren’t there usually means you only end up messing up normal living. Paraphrase what others said about how Nike’s “look at me, I’m so progressive” campaign is funded by sweatshops and based on board-room reports about profitability and target demographics. Write about your echo chamber’s consensus that the anonymous author of that New York Times op-ed is a coward who doesn’t give a shit about anything other than their own power and damage control. Those are important conversations. Really. There’s no shame. Make it new is overrated, anyway, thanks to someone else’s good-er idea.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.