Anxiety Of Influence, Once Again

Steve Savage has a post where he talks about my discussion of how influences are something to be ultimately transcended, and why that bothered him. He's worried that the need to get away from one's influences and strike out on one's own can become pathological:

  • That you can end up treating an influence as the enemy.
  • That you can treat an influence as something you can just shuck off the way you would a banana peel from the banana.
  • That you might try to move past your influences before you're ready for it.
  • That you may end up just leaving one bad influence for another.
  • That there is a dash of arrogance involved in the discussion — that "they don’t need influences (like we can get away from them)".

I agree with all this up to a point. I think any attempt to grow and reassess has to be done clear-eyed and with good intentions. The part I'm most in congruence with is the idea that you don't want to run from your influences, you want to walk away from them. If you run, you're at risk of dashing your brains out against whatever else comes in front of you, or plunging off a cliff. Running away is the behavior of the newly minted reactionary, someone who simply swaps one unquestioned set of allegiances for another. But if you walk away, you try to find good substitute paths for the one you're already taking.

I'll speak from experience as best I can. I'm still of the feeling that I owe Philip K. Dick way too much of a debt in my work, so much so that one of my more recent books feels, in retrospect, like a bad clone of something he might have done. But just swearing him off does no good. The better thing to do would be to look at what attracted me to his work, what made me want to emulate it in the first place, and drill under that and see what I come up with.

I think Steve is correct, though, in asserting what I guess could be called the pathology of compulsive uniqueness. Meaning if you throw away everything that you started with, and leave everything behind in an attempt to "be your own thing", you do indeed have total creative freedom, total originality. You also tend to end up stranded in a place where there are no markers of reference, no points of entry for audiences, nothing except your own urge to create.

This is a profound temptation, and there are times when someone can dive into it and come up out of that void with something new clenched in their teeth. But the few people who have done that were only able to do so because they had a point of departure from the known to begin with, and had spent a good deal of time learning the rules the better to break them effectively. They didn't just throw themselves off a precipice and hope an air mattress was waiting for them down there.

As an exercise, saying no to everything known is not a bad envelope-pusher. I once devised a writing game of sorts that went like this: Write down a number of things you know well and are familiar with, especially as they might serve to being a story — milieus you're intimate with, worldly knowledge of one kind or another, personality types you have an affinity to. Now write something that uses none of those things. It's a useful thing to try and goad yourself with, but I balk at trying to make it into the substance of a career.

Running within me, and running a lot closer to the surface than I have wanted to admit, is the urge to just throw it all away and start from Absolute Scratch. I always entertained the idea that I could one day create a story that had no attachments to tradition, no concessions to marketing, nothing at all in it that would allow it to be nailed down. This was before I learned that fetishizing originality was just as troublesome as fetishizing fame or success or popularity — it was the making of the fetish out of the thing that was the issue, not the thing itself.

What I really wanted, once I thought about it, was something that had as little as possible in the way of cliché. Once, when Roger Ebert was asked what movie he thought had no clichés in it, he replied, "My Dinner With Andre". That was 1981, and today, a lot of what happens in My Dinner With Andre has become a cliché of its own. But the point was not to try and become original for all time; it was to plant a flag somewhere, relative to one's moment in time and cultural space, and move forward from there.

My original ambitions as a writer were in the mold of folks like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, until one day I realized I ... just ... didn't ... really ... like that kind of stuff. I respected it, and I wanted to be called brilliant for producing something like it. But at the end of the day, I really wanted to be doing something else. So I had to learn how to walk away from it, but without running. I had to learn how to take the genuinely useful and important things it had to offer, while at the same time distancing myself from them. That wasn't something I could do all at once, and it ended up taking years on end and many manuscripts I've since thrown out.

I still feel I have to wean myself from the things I've lived in the shadow of. But at least I know now that I can walk without having to run.

Tags: Steven Savage Dialogues  creativity  influences 

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2019/01/02 17:00.

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