I use a lot of quotes in my writing. Some of you are utterly unsurprised bythat admission. I can actually picture some of you feigning shock and gasping in sarcastic disbelief at this very moment, and that’s fair. I don’t blame you. Honestly, I caught myself in that very act of facetiousness and I’m the one who wrote that fucking sentence.
It’s more than a little anticlimactic when a confession is so blatantly obvious. So much so, in fact, that, perhaps, it shouldn’t even be considered a confession. Maybe the admission would be more interesting if I was somehow oblivious to this nervous tick in my prose. Maybe acknowledging my crippled reliance on the words and sayings of writers and thinkers more astute than I, would be more captivating if it came about through some life-altering moment of clarity and insight. Well…sorry to disappoint you again…it didn’t.
I’m painfully aware of how much, how often, and for how long I have peppered my writing with quoted passages and phrases acquired from my adventures in introversion. In fact, whenever I decide to start writing about a particular topic I immediately begin excavating my Evernote for any relevant quotes on the subject. This writing, itself, is almost entirely inspired by a series of quotes I’ve recently come across. With that being said, the fact that haven’t dropped a single literary reference yet is nothing short of a god-damn miracle. Don’t worry…they’re coming…believe me.
While it’s no great mystery to you or I that I over utilize quotations in my writing, why I do is, even for me, but I have a few theories.
The bulk of my early writing was done in an academic context. I was a Humanities major, and that meant not only having to digest a seemingly insurmountable amount of books, articles, and writings, but also having to regurgitate them into a coherent and comprehensible thesis. It also meant that I was required to utilize a specific number references. The inclusion of varied reference material was intended to validate my research and substantiate my claims. It was the academy’s way of saying “your musings don’t mean shit if you can’t back it up by drawing on the views of some old dead dudes who said it first. Oh, and you damn well better cite those sources, because we know you’re not nearly smart enough to have come up with any of those ideas on your own.”
In this regard, I don’t put a lot of stock in what I have to say and I don’t think you should either. Who the fuck am I? At the end of the day, I’m just some schmuck trying to keep his shit together, and writing just happens to be one of the ways in which I do that. I don’t want you to take my word for anything. There’s enough people peddling bullshit in the world, and I refuse to be one of them. And so, I will readily refer to the work of those much smarter than I am in the hopes that maybe we’ll both learn something in the process.
I suppose there’s also some possible pomposity, or perhaps even some latent snobbery involved when I drop an obscene amount of quotes. I’m like that one friend that’s always trying to get you turned on to some obscure, underground indie band you’ve never heard of because they’re musical palette is too sophisticated to listen to the swill that passes for popular music. Yeah…I’m that guy…but with books.
I’m insatiably curious. I love reading. I love learning and I love sharing what I’ve learned. When I come across an idea that gets me excited I immediately want to show it off, because I want everyone to be excited about it too. However, being excited about books and ideas doesn’t necessarily require an over abundance of quoted material. One could easily distill it down and repackage it in their own words. I’ve gotten a lot of harsh criticism because I don’t do that. I’ve been told that I’m unoriginal, that I’m just exploiting other people’s words, and that I actually have nothing of my own to say. To that I say …“uh, yeah! And?!” Grayson Perry said that “originality is for people with short memories”, and I agree with every ounce of my unoriginal-ness.
Truth be told, no one is really original. We’re all piggybacking off of the work that came before us. Maybe I’m just more of a fanboy than most, and I’m enthusiastic about giving credit where it’s due.
The first person that ever made me feel good about how much I quote from other writers and artists was Austin Kleon. Here’s a guy who’s basically built a career off of sharing all his favorite things from all his favorite people and I love him for it. If he can do it, why can’t I? But, he also taught me to see these heaps of quotes I’ve amassed in a different light. He taught me that it was not only ok to embrace my influences, but that it was precisely what I was supposed to be doing. He says it’s “Your job…to collect good ideas”, and that “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by”. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “You’re only as good as the stuff you surround yourself with”. I’m secretly hoping that maybe if I situate my own words between enough truly great words, then maybe some of that greatness will rub off. Maybe my thoughts will become brilliant by association.
And yet, I think I’ve discovered an even deeper meaning behind my quoting excesses. As an introverted only child, I’ve spent most of my life alone in one form or another. Books became my best friends. They provided me with something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Ryan Holiday describes this well when he says that
They are always there. They speak wisdom, but offer their advice quietly. They have an unlimited capacity for listening. They offer so much and ask for essentially nothing in return…they just call upon you to be better. They are there whenever and wherever you need it. They soften our solitude.
Each of the writers, artists, and thinkers that unquote have come to me when I needed them the most.
They have made me feel seen, and heard, and less alone. James Baldwin says “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” They were a part of a wider, broader, conversation, and they were inviting me to participate in it. “They had written to me in their books, about life on earth,” Mary Ruefle explains, “and I wanted to write back.” They were speaking, I was listening, and I started writing because they welcomed my reply.
In his book, Consider This, Chuck Palahniuk writes that “when you paraphrase someone you distance and diminish them.” He goes on to explain that “If you want to negate or lessen a character, paraphrase what they say.” However, Palahniuk goes on to point out that “when you put a characters dialogue in quotes, you give the character greater reality”.
I don’t want to diminish or lessen the people that have helped me to feel like more. I will not negate the work of those who have taught me to affirm my own work. These words, and the writers who have uttered them, have been and continue to be my dearest companions, and I cannot bear to be distant from them…
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Keep showing up, Keep doing the work, FAIL BOLDLY, and let’s make something meaningful.