Last month, I started mentoring an eighth grader on his “Capstone Project”—a self-driven, semester-long, thorough study on anything of interest. The student loosely focused on ideas of originality—especially in electronic music—but wasn’t sure how to proceed.
I gave him some of my favorite reading, some of the stuff that got me hooked on creativity a few years ago. He soaked it all in.
We talked about the paradox of originality—how we’ve all been influenced by so many things, and yet the way we process these experiences, the way they manifest themselves into art form, is distinctly our own and original. The way we draw connections is (utterly, obviously) unique. We’re all chaotic hodgepodges of what we’ve seen and felt.
The eighth-grader and I talked specifics–in movies, music, photography, writing. When you imitate a famous photographer, you imitate certain things (re: his work ethic; his warm energy that invites strangers to be open), and you change certain things (re: tighter, more intimate framing to evoke a more intimate, conversational viewing experience; more brief, poignant captions).
You study the artists who fascinate you, who spark you, who make you jealous—and then you get to work. Whatever you create, then, will (obviously) be scattered with conscious and subconscious references to these heroes. Our job isn’t to avoid imitation; our job is to embrace what interests us, what inspires wonder, what clarifies our curiosities and refines our intent. Our job is to build up a huge-ass family tree of creative influence to compliment the foundational, creative instincts we intrinsically all have. Our job isn’t to appear original or profound; our job is to recognize what speaks to us and begin sculpting whatever it is we’re sculpting.
The eighth grader looked at me. “So, basically, to be original you should just, like, try not to try, huh?”
“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from.”–David Bowie
“The only mofos in my circle are people that I can learn from.”–Questlove