The Moth and Other Tales of Authorship
I’ve been pressed for time these past several months. I became a mom for a second time, and with the second child, life became more than doubly busy. One of the first things to go in order to make space for the new baby was almost all leisure reading. I haven’t even opened a novel since she was born; I have a stack of my favorite magazines and reviews in strategic places around the house, but most remain unread; and I have an electronic email folder of unread emails with attached articles labeled “to read.”
The Moth comes to the rescue. A friend recently introduced me to The Moth, a storytelling stage and website. Most stories (all true, purportedly) are refreshingly funny, insightful and well-crafted. And most stories are no more than fifteen minutes long. I upload them to my IPOD and listen to them on my commute home. These short stories do not provide the deeply engaging experience one gets from reading a good novel, but they are nonetheless satisfying in a similar fashion. They bring to life other people and events with experiences entirely different from your own that nonetheless refocus your thoughts.
In listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s story about the beginning of his journalistic career and the contest he had with a colleague to insert a certain phrase into the pages of the newspaper as often as possible (a phrase such as “perverse and often baffling”), I had a new appreciation for the role of authorship in journalism. Indeed, on that particular commute home, I thought about authorship and authors a lot. I thought about how my older daughter sits and “writes” (she is only four) and tells me “this is my work.” I thought about the many theoretical and experimental scientists, whose academic norm is to co-author articles, which articles are written by the dozens in a short span of time and are secondary in importance to the data they generate in their experiments. I thought about judicial opinions that are written by law clerks. I thought about the star-footnote at the bottom of law review articles that acknowledge the contribution of colleagues and friends, and then include the disclaimer “any errors are my own.” I thought about how many people have spoken to me about Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker about innovation (which I have yet to finish) and how authors, like Malcolm Gladwell, become famous public intellectuals permeating so many different social and academic settings. I thought about how, even in the Internet Age, books (a traditional vehicle for authorship) matter. I thought about how the assertion of authorship is a complex, social act, the meaning of which is elusive and depends on the specific writing context.
And this may be an obvious conclusion to draw – but I had a relatively short commute and didn’t have much more time to think deeply about whether I was being profound or banal. I was nearing the house and I was going to have to put away my IPOD and devote my time to parenting rather than thinking more about how, it seems, writing creates a community rather than the reverse.
As I now sit with a bit more time (albeit right now stealing time away from my research and writing rather than from my family), I wonder how obvious this insight actually is — at least from the standpoint of law. We tend to say that a community (or a person) creates a writing. This is one of the central tenets of copyright law and, if broadened to include invention or innovation, is central to intellectual property law generally. (I have elsewhere called this one of the origin myths of intellectual property.) But, of course, constitutions are constitutive of communities – they birth them anew. And many novelists or essayists will say, “I don’t know what I think or what I want to say until I write it down,” strongly suggesting that written discourse shapes their thoughts (and therefore themselves). How would this insight – that a community’s writing creates the community rather than vice versa (be it the journalism community, the juridical community, etc.) – change our view of intellectual property rights? I’m going to have to think more about this on the next commute home … but then I’m just dying to listen to the next Moth podcast.