How to Be Original, According to Five Pros

From a Wall Street Journal story headlined “How to Be Original, According to Some Pros”:

Beanie Feldstein

“Originality is something that every human being, every day, probably thinks about. You always want to feel simultaneously connected and amongst, but also unique and original and special. When I was about 16, 17, I started saying this mantra that has really gotten me through a lot of life that’s rooted in originality: ‘They either want the Bean, or they don’t want the Bean.’ As my wife would say, because she’s British, ‘Sometimes people are a little bit Marmite’: You’re going to love them, or you’re going to hate them. I understood I am not like the others in a lot of ways. In wanting to be an actor, I knew I didn’t always fit in. I knew that that was an asset even though it can sometimes feel really alienating.”

Feldstein is an actor. She stars in Drive-Away Dolls, out in September.

Teju Cole

“Originality is important, but competence and expertise are more important. You can’t be an avant-garde violinist without being a violinist. The closer something is to being the kind of field where somebody on the outside thinks, Oh, I could do that, the more susceptible it is to that kind of bullshit. You know you cannot walk into the surgical theater and remove somebody’s appendix, but [some think they can] put together a book of poems without going into the profound difficulty that a Louise Glück or Tomas Tranströmer might have engaged in. What I look for in my work and in that of others, in any field, is really not untrammeled originality but the balance between originality and knowledge.”

Cole is an author, photographer and professor of creative writing at Harvard. His novel Tremor is out in October.

Jenny Odell

“I taught a digital art class for eight years at Stanford to non–art majors and often encountered notions of what ‘real’ art is that were very much tied up in notions of originality. I used to have them read parts of this book called Postproduction, from 2002, by [Nicolas Bourriaud], making the argument that the new role of the artist is closer to that of a producer or a DJ. Media and images and forms are out there, and his definition of originality was tracing a new path through that. [When I research in archives] I get really excited about the idea that a piece of ephemera from a long time ago can be made new through someone’s interpretation. It means something to you because of what’s happening right now and because of your life experience.”

Odell is a multidisciplinary artist and author, most recently of Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.

Andrew Tarlow

“I don’t spend much time thinking, Is this egg sandwich the best, most original egg sandwich ever? Instead: Does it taste great? Does it have some sense of nostalgia? Does it evoke a memory that you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the sandwich I had with my grandfather’? Those are probably more meaningful ideas. This is going to sound a little weird, but I actually believe ideas are floating in the ether and we can just grab them, and we have to just be attuned to them. I don’t think there’s really original thought. It’s all floating in the world. Everything has already been done. I’m just doing it right now at this moment because I think it’s right.”

Tarlow is a restaurateur, known for several Brooklyn restaurants, including Roman’s and Marlow & Sons. His cookbook Diner is out in September.

Abby Stein

“There’s a lot of pressure put on the concept of originality, but at the end of the day, your perception of anything original you come up with is ultimately influenced by everything else you have experienced. I probably at some points have bought into this idea that oh, my life story is so original: I was the first person growing up in [a Hasidic] community of a few hundred thousand people to come out as trans—so, quotation marks, ‘original.’ But my ability to do that is only on the backs of so many trans people who came before me, so many people who have worked out their own paths from my community, from other fundamentalist religious communities. We need to be aware of the backs we’re standing on.”

Stein is an activist, rabbi and author of Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman.

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