Mister Wizard, Get Me Out of Here

By

Do people everywhere say they covet prayers?

I have heard a thousand people say that they coveted my prayers, or the prayers of everyone. I’m glad there’s nothing in the Bible against coveting your neighbor’s prayers, because man would we need a lot of repentance in the south.

Do not be deceived, people of the listening audience; this post is all about the craft of writing (or singing, clogging, etc.) and not about prayer coveting. But is there a parallel in the world of writing? Let’s force one through, shall we?

You shall not covet your neighbor’s writing? OK. Let’s go with that, I guess.

I usually chafe a little beneath the bridle of our popular culture’s religion of selfish rebellion, with all its focus on originality and uniquity. Uniquity is defined (by me -because I think I just invented it –original!) as a sinful preoccupation with your own uniqueness. Witness the fad of denying the sufficiency and inerrancy of the Scriptures and the rush to express and encourage private, personal, non-binding, accommodating, and feckless meanings (which just happen to be fashionable).

But it can also be a humble approach to aim to express your own gifts. If we see them as that –gifts- then we should not be tempted to take too much credit for them. Nor will we be too surprised when the way we express ourselves as writers (or painters, or banjo pickers) is different from others. Maybe we’ll also be better prepared for criticism. Bonus.

Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery and I’m sure there are cases when it’s appropriate. But if you are a gifted writer, then be yourself. We do not need another C.S. Lewis. If we did, he would still be here. But we might need you.

Clones are boring.

In my youth (and adulthood as well) my wise father frequently quoted from that great fount of philosophical wonder –the Tooter the Turtle cartoon. In this show’s conclusion Mister Wizard would invariably remind young Tooter that his desire to be someone else (a knight, a baseball star, etc.) was misplaced.  He argued for contentment, and his exhortation to use your own gifts and be your own self is folk wisdom in a grand, glorious gulp.

“Always, always I tell you, Tootor. Be just what you is, not what you is not. Folks what do this has the happiest lot.”

Sounds good to me. Now, about actually doing it…


33 Comments

  1. Aaron Roughton

    This post has generated random thoughts in my brain. The first is that scene in The Incredibles where Elastigirl says to Dash that everyone is special, and he replies something to the effect that that’s “another way of saying that no one is.” The second is Andy G’s Original Cliche song. I think both of these thoughts were generated by the sinful definition of uniquity. Am I getting your point? Or do you have more ‘splaining to do? Us engineers be skillet headed sometimes.

    I long for the contentment that comes with finding my own voice as a songwriter as opposed to trying to either A. Sound like whoever is popular at the moment or B. Sound like no one who has ever existed to stand out artificially. I’ve caught glimpses of that contentment, but there’s some level of “trying not to try” that starts a downward spiral of self awareness until you find yourself laying on the floor like a Tickle Me Elmo doll with low batteries. Uniquity indeed. Thanks for the encouragement to be who I is.

    By the way, I used to covet prayers. I also used to covet short, well thought out comments. Not any more.

  2. Benjamin Wolaver

    Personally, when I first started writing, I struggled a lot with two feelings: 1. that to write badly would be demeaning and embarrassing,, and 2. that for my writing to sound like someone else’s was outright failure.

    The first sentiment is, of course, a subtle form of egotism and must be rejected. The second, however, is a way of reflecting S.D.’s point on uniquity (great new word!). Ultimately, copying is the only way to become great. Borrowing (not plagiarism, of course) requires humility.

    In classical music’s heyday, all composers borrowed from a common pool of themes, licks, and musical ideas. Mozart is considered great because he used this pool to the greatest effect and added the most to its breadth and scope. But strictly speaking, these composers borrowed from others with an abandon that we would consider unseemly. But it allowed for artistic development in a way nothing else could.

    Case in point: how many children have started their own fantasy book with a bad Tolkien-esque opening line? How many plot twists, story arcs, characters, and even morals have been, essentially, “passed down”. Why did Stevenson, Scott, Sabatini, and the rest all have the same historical adventure framework?

    So yes, copying is, in the end, something to avoid. But on the other hand, there is no other way to know how to be great than to mirror greatness.

  3. Stacy Grubb

    Benjamin,

    I like your assessment. As a singer, I admittedly started out trying to copy someone I admired. At that time (roughly between the ages of 13 and 21), I mostly felt very frustrated and down on myself because I’d actually aimed very high (in more ways than one) in attempting to vocally keep up with the likes of Mariah Carey. Yeah, that sounds like a really foolish thing to admit, especially coming from a former teenage hillbilly singing karaoke in her bedroom tucked away up a West Virginia holler (the only “former” status, of course, is “teenage”). And that was just the singing aspect. From a writing perspective, I wanted to be as great as the people who had written all those old tunes my dad used to sing to me. Will there ever be another “Darby’s Castle,” “Without You,” “The Twelfth Rose,” or “Six White Horses” (Waylon’s version, I mean)? Nope, there won’t be. Looking back, though, in my attempt to be Mariah and the plethora of writers it took to make up some of my favorite songs (Dolly and Kris Kristofferson being two of my most immediate inspirations), I actually managed to be them in my own way. Do I sound like Mariah? No, not by a long shot. But trying to all those years definitely taught me two things about my own voice: What it do and what it don’t do.

    The thing about putting ourselves out there, I’ve learned, is that folks will always find someone who came before you to compare you to. I find it infinitely ironic that the person I’m chastised the most for “trying to sound like” had little or no influence on me when I was actually pre-occupied with trying to sound like someone else. I’m flattered by the comparison, but not by the accusation that my goal was to emulate someone. Anyway, maybe that’s another topic. My point is, human nature is to pick out things we recognize because that makes us comfortable. That’s why so many “ghost faces” are found in pictures of trees and smudgy windows. Our brain automatically sees shapes and turns them into human faces. And voila! Grandma’s backyard is haunted and has a little girl watching her 85th birthday party from the attic. Thus (I say “thus” to make this statement more like a proven scientific finding, though really, it comes from the If A = B and C = B, then A = C logic of my own conclusion drawing), people will hone in on similarities moreso than differences because if similarity = familiarity and familiarity = comfort, then similarity = comfort. Errr…What?

    Forget everything I just said and remember this instead: Great post Sam.

    Stacy

  4. Peter B

    Heh… and here I was, congratulating myself on recognizing your title as being borrowed from The Matrix… but of course that wouldn’t be very unique.

    Also, I’ve been quite confused by prayer-coveting too; eventually I just gave up, just like I gave up correcting incorrect uses of the phrase “beg the question”.

    Funny how “uniquity” can apply even to those of us in the less artsy world (though here it may just be the desire not to be accused of academic theft, patent violation, and the like).

    Play it again, Sam! That should really tick off the unique-ers.

  5. Aaron Roughton

    Peter, I have never seen Tooter the Turtle, and so I never understood that line in the Matrix. Thanks for making that connection. Hold on…let me see…yep, that’s the very last thing I didn’t understand about the Matrix. Now I can check that box and move on.

  6. Peter B

    Aaron, I’ve never seen the aforementioned unfortunately-titled show either. I just figured the movie quote was a tribute to Don Herbert.

    Do you think it’ll be possible — after the end and the real beginning — for us to count how many times we “knew” something that was actually an incorrect assumption? Because that just might be my top “ultimate question”, if it weren’t so darn self-centered.

  7. Aaron Roughton

    Peter, I made the same incorrect assumption you did. I don’t think I want to know how many times I’ve done that. And anyway, all of my top ultimate questions deal with professional wrestling.

  8. Tony Heringer

    You guys are too young for “Tooter the Turtle”. Sam, how do you find this stuff. For years, I would use lines from that cartoon. “Help! Mr. Wizard!”
    “Tooter, Tooter! Time for this one to come home!” Yes, it was a goofy little cartoon about the misadventures of Tooter Turtle. Thanks for reminder Sam.
    I’m sure the rest of this post has value, but I’m stuck on memory lane.

  9. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    “No one who bothers about originality will ever be original.” CS Lewis. He went on to say to just tell the truth the best you can.

    I have taught banjo at bluegrass camps where people ask about being original, partly because I have evolved a distinctive banjo style. I tell them I learned what I know by copying Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe solos note for note, and also loving electric guitar, blues and such, people like B.B. King, Freddy King, Larry Carlton. Over time this imitation amalgamates into “originality” as it is combined with experimentation.

    Cloning only really happens when we hold to a very short list of influences. There is a very distinctive and influential player in bluegrass named Tony Rice; he is so good that many have him as their sole influence. As such they may be great players, but the highest they can attain to is “They sound almost just like Tony Rice.”

    When I was a kid I knew a guy who didn’t listen to music because he didn’t want his own music to be influenced by others. I knew instinctively that was a recipe for disaster.

  10. Peter B

    Ron, given that progression of celebrities, I expected it to read “B.B. King, Freddy King, Larry King”.

    Now THAT would be original.

  11. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    You guys have such funny and insightful comments. Thanks a bunch. I always (OK, usually) feel a bit of the “What am I doing foisting this nonsense on people, this makes no sense” pang when I put up a post.

    This comment thread has done again what has happened so many times here at the RR. You guys can really turn these things into a good conversation.

    Many of these posts are really lacking without the light and humor you guys bring to the table (at this public house). It would be a lot dingier place if not for the friends who pipe up with winsome words to enliven the atmosphere. You make this place a kind of community (such as can be had without face to face).

    So, thank you. You are all unique, and weird. And I love that.

  12. Rebecca

    Okay, I too, have fond memories of Mister Wizard and Tooter growing up. But only cause I have the same father as you. This was a good post. I appreciate it.

  13. Stacy Grubb

    Sam, the other day Elijah told me that he’s a weirdo. I told him no he’s not thinking maybe one of the little girls had called him that. And he said, “Oh yes I am! I’m a weirdo just like you and Daddy.” “Heck yes,” I told him. “Heck yes.”

    Ron, that reminds me of an artist review page I ran across the other day on that artist’s own website. It was from several different DJ’s all concerning one single and at least every other review contained the accolade, “Sounds just like Bill Monroe.” Bill Monroe did a good Bill Monroe, that’s for sure. Funny, I can’t remember the artist’s name all those reviews were about.

  14. Aaron Roughton

    Ron, it seems like I heard Harry Connick Jr. make a remark in an interview one time about how when he was writing he stopped listening to other people’s music. It didn’t make any sense to me. Of course, I’ve also heard him list his numerous musical influences.

    Mr. Smith, I’m glad you overcome your “nonsense” pangs and put this stuff out here. Thanks.

  15. Profile photo of Eric Peters

    Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    Mr. Smith, I am expecting a personal introduction to the world of Tooter Turtle and Mister Wizard when I’m up there in December.

    “Covet your prayers.” In my mind this is along the same lines as “a hedge of protection”. I need something more in the lines of a 20-foot-thick steel wall, not a nice clean row of perennial ligustrums for protection.

    Why’d you hafta go and pick on Ron?

  16. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Aaron, I can see the point in not listening during the songwriting process as long as we listen a lot in general. But “I don’t listen to music because it will influence my playing” is like saying, “I don’t eat because we are what we eat.” If we don’t eat, we become what we eat – we waste away to nothing.

  17. Tony Heringer

    I feel like Tooter. I still haven’t read the content of this post. I was distracted by Eric’s post and wondered over to Stacy’s website. That gal can sing, so I picked up a copy of “Hurricane” from Amazon. Way to go Stacy. The sounds great.

    It’s Rabbit Room music week for me I guess. Picked up Jason Gray’s new album and now Stacy Grubb.

    Sam,

    I promise to read the actual content of this post. 

    Be God’s,

    Tony

  18. Eric (not EP)

    Tony:

    Sorry for the distraction…it is just that being raised across the border from WVA in PA, we were raised on hillbilly humor…you know…how many Mountaineers…etc…etc.. What’s the difference between a…

    Glad I could distract you enough to promote Stacy’s music.

    Eric

  19. E

    Funny how context shapes perception. After reading this post, I caught an article in the WSJ:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124881878743688051.html

    About a guy who’s most public works were ghost writing for celebrities where he got little to no credit and the personal unhappiness for him that ensued.

    Just in the context of artists and credit and originality and how our expression can be tied to purpose…

    It was fascinating, I mean here was a guy that was a good writer and his words were read by millions… but he was coveting his OWN writing in some sense.

    Ouch.

  20. Stacy Grubb

    Tony,

    Thank you so much.

    Eric (not EP),

    The audio is exactly as you would imagine. The visual would include my sister pounding on the wall that separated my bedroom from hers and threatening my life if I didn’t shut up. That, of course, bleeds into the audio.

    Stacy

  21. Tony Heringer

    Stacy,

    You are most welcome. I’m just sorry I hadn’t picked up a copy sooner. Strong work my sister.

    Mr. Smithereens…you scary!

  22. Eric (not EP)

    UNRELATED POST

    Happy Birthday to ….

    Ron Block. 07/30/19 (your guess here)

    So much love over on Facebook and not a word here on RR?

    Whasup with that???

    You Rock!

    Eric & family

  23. Robert Treskillard

    Mr. Smither,

    Thank you for your Tooter tutoring … I’m not sure if that played up in Minnesota or not when I was a kid, but I have never heard of it before. Very insightful.

    The question is: When does Uniquity become Iniquity?

    Yes, we must be humble to borrow, but I think we all start that way. We are all a mash-up of what we have read, heard, touched, talked-to, listened-to, etc. In fact, it would be difficult, I think, for anyone to even say who they sound like. Those around us often know, but we are often immune to seeing it.

    This is also true in writing. Unless you specifically tried to copy copy copy, the best one could achieve would be a hint of someone else’s writing style. And if a hint shines through of this or that great writer, I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. We all need to read, absorb, consume, and gullet-down great examples of writing, or else we will produce nothing but drivel.

    I like Jeffrey Overstreets attitude (not that I’ve followed its lofty ambition) of only reading what he consider’s great literature, and therefore, hoping that in the osmosis of Osmosismosmos, that it would come out in his own writing.

    (i.e.) If all Michaelangelo stuidied were pill-bugs, I doubt he would have painted the Last Supper or the Sistine Chapel.

    But most of all, we need to take the “bent” that God has given us, study the true life around us, and write. That is where we insulate ourselves from Iniquity and become Uniquitous.

    Thanks for inspiring a few, fleeting thoughts today, Sam-Smithers. You’re great, unique, and a good friend.

    -Robert

  24. Benjamin Wolaver

    A quick followup:

    One of the reasons we have such difficulty with Uniquity is that historians rearrange the past to make it seem like great artists emerge in a vacuum. Yes, we know intellectually that this is total bunk, but if we don’t consciously recognize this fact, we can come to see people like Rembrandt, Bach, Shakespeare, and the rest as isolated geniuses.

    This is partially because great men overshadow their lesser peers. But it is also human nature to elevate certain men beyond what their art actually deserves. Shakespeare is a great example. There is no poet or playwright greater than Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare’s work is perfection (at risk to my physical well-being, I think T.S. Eliot was right: Hamlet is a bad revenge play)

    We all stand on the shoulders of giants, but if we end up taller in the eyes of the world as a result, let us not forget who got us there to begin with…

  25. Leigh Mc

    As someone who made her living as a ghostwriter for nearly 8 years, I can attest that the hardest voice of all to capture is your own. It took me half that long again to move from “ubiquity” to something approaching “uniquity.” Just one tiny letter…and all that time and effort! Even so, almost every day I read or hear something that strikes me as a pang and makes me think “I wish I could do that with words.” (Several of you Rabbit Room-ers have been guilty of this – just so ya know.)

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