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jackacid

The double-edged sword of inspiration

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If you refer to almost any "how-to" book in any creative field (e.g. writing, painting, music etc.), most authors will suggest to immerse yourself in the respective field you're trying to break into. The logical thinking is that this will inspire you and help you keep your finger on the pulse of new ideas, even if they are spun upon old ones.

Wanna write fantasy? Read any and all fantasy that you can. Wanna paint? Pick up a subscription to Juxtapoz magazine and go to every exhibit you can, and so forth.

However, there is another side of the coin to this thinking.

Some time ago I was showing a small collection of my photography at an art gallery in Reno, NV. I got into a discussion with the gallery owner, who was an avid photographer, concerning the sources of our inspiration to create.

He made a seemingly curious comment that unlike most artists, he doesn't keep up with other artist's work; his reasoning that he didn't want to be influenced by what's already out there.

In that moment I realized that, unconciously until that moment, I am a bit of the same way. I love writing science fiction for fun, but I've read very sci-fi few books, with the exception of a handful of classics. I love photography, but rarely study the techniques of legends past, nor am I very familar with many famous photographers or their work. Is this because I'm lazy? Or is it because I'm terrified of being too influenced? Perhaps a bit of both?

Is the fact that we're inspired by others the very beauty of inspiration itself, that we are building blocks to a richer history of invention? Or are we more cowardly, afraid to set forth in uncharted waters like we've seen some (but not seemingly enough) creators do?

It does stand to reason that the more time passes, the more we're coming up with "new" ideas that are mere rehashes of those before them. Look no further than mainstream Hollywood as an example of this....we're seeing more re-boots and re-makes than ever before.

The obvious con of this thinking though, especially in the forms of writing or film, is that you're likely to get latched onto an idea or concept that has been presented a thousand times over. Just because an idea seemingly "comes out of nowhere", hardly means it's an original idea.

So when does something come together and truly stand on its own? What is the perfect marriage of these two schools of thought to create something that at least stands a chance of being recognized as fresh or original?

To me the answer seems to come in a couple forms:

1. History and
2. Like-interests that are seperate from the specific medium or genre in question.

History is full of tales and stories that can easily be taken and set anywhere we'd like. You can spin them any way you want and because the events actually happened, a creator's premise is already within the realm of plausibility. Imagine the events of the Titanic, but set in a faroff space setting. Or perhaps the legnedary tales of Sir Ernest Shackleton could be translated to a fantasy tale of exploration and courage. As a footnote to history, the same is true for old myths, stories and legends such as old fables and fairy tales, set in times and places where they are not immediately obvious.

Concerning like-interests, I mean a collage of interests that can funnel down into one body of work. As a pure example, the Matrix combined the Wachowski brother's love of science fiction, anime and martial arts. Star Wars was based on the Hero's Journey, which Campbell pointed out as being comparative myths that boil down to an ancient template for storytelling.

So I pose this question to you, the reader -- to be aware, or to not be aware of the creative world that surrounds us?

What's your take on this and why?

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Updated May 19th, 2009 at 03:05 PM by jackacid

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  1. Alexandria's Avatar
    Hello jackacid,

    I have often wondered the same thing, and have even changed majors due to a variant of the question you ask: Is knowing what past composers have composed important enough to delve into? to memorize, replicate, then expand on (if that is even possible anymore)?

    For being an avid reader, I have read very little of any one genre. I agree with your questioning:
    Is this because I'm lazy? Or is it because I'm terrified of being too influenced? Perhaps a bit of both?
    Personally, I believe it is a bit of both. I have played the piano for going on 12 years. This said, I have found it impossible for me to compose any musical "works" of my own for everything I pluck out sounds like everything I've heard or practiced from before. Simply changing a rhythm or chord does not make it a completely new song/composition. I fear that reading too much into the same genre will adversely have the same effect.

    I felt as though I were having an "ah-ha!" moment when reading further into your post:
    Is the fact that we're inspired by others the very beauty of inspiration itself, that we are building blocks to a richer history of invention? Or are we more cowardly, afraid to set forth in uncharted waters like we've seen some (but not seemingly enough) creators do?
    Those are the true questions of art, are they not? When does "expanding" on what has been done become simply replication? In an instantaneous world, we live in the now, where Twittering to friends about what you're about to do is common-place (at least here in the states)... one must come to wonder if there is any imagination left. I find that more and more individuals would rather watch a three minute clip on YouTube than read someone's post. Have we become soo ignorant as to not be able to write a letter to a loved one?
    But off my soap box, I believe that we are afraid to go outside the box. We have found comfort in knowing that our work will at least be partially accepted because we know that our readers can relate to what we have written from someplace else. How many novels take you into a completely new world, with completely new rules, with completely new everything? New plot lines, new twists, new new new. Very very few (at least from what I've searched). I believe that critics harass and discard anything remotely close to being original not because they want to limit creativity, but merely because they don't understand. (And I am not limiting critics to those who edit and publish novels: readers are just as much a critic as they are.)

    So when does something come together and truly stand on its own? What is the perfect marriage of these two schools of thought to create something that at least stands a chance of being recognized as fresh or original?...
    1. History and
    2. Like-interests that are seperate from the specific medium or genre in question.
    This is where I must at least partially disagree with you. History merely fuels the re-hashing fire. (I don't quite understand where you are going with the second point...)

    So I pose this question to you, the reader -- to be aware, or to not be aware of the creative world that surrounds us?
    Yes and No. You must stick your head out of your own stories every once and a while, perhaps to know what the trend is, perhaps to discover that what you've been writing isn't as original as presumed... But on the flip side, do not crane your neck out too far for you will only get cut: submerging oneself too much into the genre simply has a crippling effect.
  2. jackacid's Avatar
    Thanks Alexandria, good insight.

    Quote Originally Posted by Alexandria
    This is where I must at least partially disagree with you. History merely fuels the re-hashing fire. (I don't quite understand where you are going with the second point...)
    Well in re-reading my comments, I don't think I was clear enough. I didn't mean that we can take direct sequences from history and use them (although that's what my comment implies); rather, it can inspire ideas and before we know it, we can have a fresh idea in mind. We can look to them as a starting point.

    As for my second point, more murkiness on my part. My only point was probably stating the obvious...that we can be inspired by things that are seemingly unrelated to what we're focusing on.

    This at least lends to the notion we can come up with fresher ideas, vs. being influenced by a direct product of something we aspire to.

    Sometimes I find myself having to take my stories totally out of the genre for which I'm aiming, just to have a fresher perspective of it. It's an odd thing, trying to get (and keep) those wheels turning.