Art is selfish. Or at least the reason we make it is. The consequences of creating something are mostly beyond our control, and how the world chooses to view our work is unpredictable. All my life, I’ve sung songs and written words. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t yelping out anything that ached or writing out what made my heart twist. My voice could be heard and was immortalized on a cassette tape or a notebook sheet of paper: a way to say “I felt this,” and there were no take-backs. For most of us, these expressions are heard or seen by few but exist in immaculate secrecy and live out their purpose: to release.
A few winters ago, I lived in a town I didn’t understand and was having an identity crisis. If I wasn’t working at the bar, I was writing, and if I wasn’t writing, I was drinking whiskey-ginger ales with people I mostly had fun with. Degreeless and generally underwhelmed with my professional life, I decided to submit some work to HelloGiggles, a female empowerment website founded by mega-celebrity Zooey Deschanel and her two best friends. I thought very little about the submission and assumed my email entitled “HI!” would be lost in the ether with Viagra coupons and identity theft spam. So when I received an email a few weeks later saying my work would be published, I was shocked. I thought this tiny article I had written would reach a few people, and I’d have the satisfaction of knowing that someone on this planet thought what I had to say was interesting enough to share it. And that’d be that.
The morning it was published, I woke up to dozens of congratulatory emails, text messages and Facebook posts. It seemed odd that so many people knew about it, but I hadn’t exactly been modest about my excitement to be included in a pretty big website. I clicked the link. Within two hours of being posted, it had received over 2,500 “likes.” By lunchtime it was being circulated from Huffington Post to feminist websites. It was surreal. How could my work be safely tucked away in that immaculate secrecy and then suddenly be launched into an impossibly enormous virtual world where tens of thousands of people were reading my most personal thoughts? It’s hard to explain the feeling of validation that swelled inside my chest after having been rejected for being too “sensitive” or “wishy-washy” for most my life. It was incredible and overwhelming for so many people to not only accept what I had to say but also celebrate it. The next six months were powerful. I was offered a regular column on the site, commissioned to write for other, smaller publications, and my blog following had quadrupled.
We make art as a means to create a tangible object that mirrors our insides. We make it because we are hungry, lonely, stupid and human. And we make it because somewhere deep inside ourselves we don’t want to be forgotten in a world that is too big to remember us.
Then one morning I got a scathing “anonymous” email. The email, in short, accused me of plagiarizing Deschanel. At first, I LOLed it off. Then I decided to investigate. The ensuing Google search left my veins filled with that desperate nervousness. Picture after picture, meme after meme, website after website—all had an excerpt from my article alongside a photo of Deschanel—and her name was attached to it. My heart sank. Not because the integrity of my work was actually at stake; I mean, I guess it sort of was, but this accusation held no legal bearing whatsoever. What ached was the idea that for a moment in my very average and unglamorous, largely unrecognized life, I had been acknowledged and remembered. But that memory had gotten lost in a tangled mess of USB cords, GIFs and strangers’ Tumblrs.
When we make art we do it because of an itch inside of our bones. An itch that can only be scratched by releasing whatever is consuming us. And for many of us, there is an inherent loneliness in even our “happiest” work. We make art as a means to create a tangible object that mirrors our insides. We make it because we are hungry, lonely, stupid and human. And we make it because somewhere deep inside ourselves we don’t want to be forgotten in a world that is too big to remember us.
We spend so much of our lives trying to be seen or recognized. A way to say “I was here.” Maybe that’s why we write on bathroom stalls, why we build bridges, why we get degrees, tie our shoes, fall in love. We want to feel we aren’t a tiny speck of dust on something that goes on with or without us.
When I started writing this, I thought I wanted to talk about how the lack of accountability online creates a dangerous landscape for freelance artists. How Pinterest is obnoxious and the internet makes us lazy. But I realized that wasn’t what cut me. My work is my work. Period. There was never any legal question of who said what, and Deschanel wasn’t acting like those words were hers. All it took was one person making a meme with incorrect attribution, and that mistake spread like wildfire. Words from the most sincere part of my heart were tossed around in whatever way the internet wanted. It sucked. But my career wasn’t ruined. Really there was no professional consequence at all; the only thing that was bruised was my ego. That I had said something that a great deal of folks related to, and I subsequently didn’t get credit for ever having said it. And that’s a lonely feeling.
Considering most of the world is without clean drinking water, I find most of my complaints and sadness insignificant and, quite honestly, rather boring. But the skeleton of the experience is what interests me. The underlying ache to be understood and remembered is powerful stuff. In many ways, that human compulsion is what makes our society what it is. And sometimes that desire is guided by honor and decency, and sometimes it’s a cancerous pull that destroys countless things and people.
We spend so much of our lives trying to be seen or recognized. A way to say “I was here.” Maybe that’s why we write on bathroom stalls, why we build bridges, why we get degrees, tie our shoes, fall in love. We want to feel we aren’t a tiny speck of dust on something that goes on with or without us. That for a few seconds, we can be great, memorable or revered. That our hearts or minds are strong enough to be celebrated. We’re so often lost in a sea of people and ideas that when we have the opportunity to share, we relish and illuminate and try. And that reaching—that yearning—is what makes all this crummy stuff worth the struggle. It’s what makes us want to do right. Be better. Become more full.
When you make something and offer it up to the internet, know that once those zeroes and ones enter the vast landscape of the worldwide web, it can become something else, something completely separate from what you intended. And sometimes that means you get accused of plagiarism and question the integrity of the world. But it might also mean that a woman in South Africa writes you an email, thanking you for kind words and love. And then ego dissipates because you’re part of something so much larger than a stupid misattributed meme.