I, Copycat

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This post is about how I often copy from people & projects I admire.

Stealing ideas

Tonight I started working on a new project. I'm mostly excited and interested in how it will go. But underneath that excitement is a pessimism that I feel I should be acknowledging. The project is based on Ari's Garden, which is directly inspired by Grim Grains. Ari's Garden was built to be a cooking site that helps me catalogue recipes and present content in a way that would encourage me to cook more. I'm planning on building a database-backed version of this application with more features for my next "three-month" project.

I feel a certain sadness about this copying I have done. This isn't the first time this has happened and I sadly feel some shame about it, (I'm going to have to unpack that). Where else has this happened? Trunk is my own implementation of Learning With Texts. Laundromat is a clone of the op-1 tombola.

Now, there are plenty of inspirational quotes about how good artists steal, etc. I'm not going to lay another one of those on you. Or, perhaps you might proffer that "no one can create new things in a vacuum," (to which I agree). Yes, yes, all those things are true. In fact, after enough time in the world of programming, especially with the boom of open-source code, I've come to understand that the "Lemme build the same thing, but better/in my own way" ethos is common. Entire programming languages take inspiration from previous languages and then aim to improve. Progress is made.

So what's my problem?

Software as expression

A part of my background and who I am sees programming as a creative and expressive endeavour. Outside of the work hemisphere, I want to be creating software that is an expression of myself - tools, games, and programs that generally revolve around what I care about and what I want to see exist in the world.

Part of what drives me forward to build some of these tools is that I believe people have a great capacity for learning (especially outside of traditional education settings), and that a journey of life-long-learning can be fulfilling and have rippling positive effects in other parts of life. That ethos is naturally reflected in the things I write and want to make (this may not be immediately obvious, but I feel this way nonetheless).

That's great so far - but why am I just re-creating what already exists?

I don't know.

I don't know, and it's starting to sadden me. I think a part of me feels that I am trying to fill a hole that I don't quite understand, or that perhaps I'm not creative enough to come up with "new ideas". Or, perhaps I'm trying to be like other people I admire, and if I copy them, I'll be even more fulfilled - because, well, I'll admire myself.

Oof. I didn't expect this post to turn into a counselling session. I guess this is why I'm writing this out.

Slowing becoming "original"

Some of the above is mirrored in my journey to learn to paint & draw. There is much copying going on there. But somehow, over there, and not here in software-land, do I find the copying more okay. I think perhaps a part of it is that I don't publicly share my learning process of painting - or moreso, I don't think of it as anything beyond a means for practice. People studied masters so that they could improve. And, then, I guess they end up putting their own spin on it in the end.

So maybe that's it - to put one's own spin on things. That's where I think I want to be - because if I'm not genuinely listening to myself in the end, what am I doing this all for? To be a half-finished clone of someone else at the end of the day?

This is getting pretty borderline teenage angst. But let's continue ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Maybe, similar to my journey to learn to paint and draw, I'm still just beginning to build software (even though I've been doing it... 5 years longer than drawing). Maybe I'm still studying from masters, and the more unique ideas will come, when I'm ready. And to be fair, how many people build a tetris clone while their learning how to write in a new language, or a static site generator? The reason it happens so much is that by having an archetype to recreate, you can focus on learning your tools first.

I came across a quote that becoming a good artist means you need to steal from many sources. Copying just one person is going to be borderline plagiarism (especially if you are trying to sell your work), but taking from many people you admire eventually becomes a fusing of what you have learned to appreciate more generally. Over time, you slowly become original, standing on the shoulders of giants.

As for why being original matters to me -- well, that's probably best saved for another vulnerable-self-reflexive post.

At the end of the day, you can spend time worrying about what other people think, or you can follow your curiousity and admiration (and give credit where credit is due). It takes a certain courage to do that - the kind that comes from accepting who and where you are, I think.

Again, wow. It's late at night, so I think I should call it here and head to bed. I'm not usually one for writing like this publicly, but I think it helped to articulate some of these thoughts in a 'published' way. I suppose this is what I wanted with this year's framework of one-project-per-quarter - to be challenged to think about how and why I work the way I do! If this post resonated with you, send me an e-mail and tell me what you think.