“I can’t invent, I can only copy,” thus confessed one of the most delightfully successful creatives in all of children’s literature, Beatrix Potter. Yet who among us would have the audacity to turn the pages of “Peter Rabbit” and sniff, “What’s so original about this?” Hers was an imaginative originality, ultimately one that became her own, yet born and bred through years of studying and recreating the work of those who had gone before her.
Indeed, as Potter’s biographer Margaret Lane reveals, “From babyhood Beatrix had had a passion for paint-box and pencil, and her earliest drawings had nearly all been of animals and birds, copied from plates in old-fashioned natural histories.” She would later draw from real life (or, somewhat gruesomely, from death), sketching and painting her furry companions: rabbits, mice, and even a “dead fox from heaven knows where.” These companions evolved into a world where “rabbits walk upright, skate on ice, carry umbrellas” and continue, a century later, to charm millions. Mark Twain argued that there’s no such thing as an original thought or idea: every creative endeavor upon which we embark is nurtured by outside influences and prior discoveries. In essence, humans are creatives who copy. But don’t let such a reduced statement deflate your hopes and dreams! Each time we copy with the intent to learn and understand, we are working toward something uniquely us.
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