Today I'm delighted to publish a guest post from writer and film-maker Phil South, discussing his special interest, inspiration.
Take it away, Phil...
I often hear writers or aspiring writers talking at parties. Often that's more than enough reason for me to get my coat. Perhaps they're yarning on about what they wrote, how they wrote it, where they get their ideas from, as if they're being asked by Parkinson to give us all the details. Sadly most of the time nobody asked and these poor souls are just GAGGING for someone to ask them about their book, so they just launch into it anyway.
It happened again over Christmas. Standing next to my hosts blazing hot Aga with a mulled wine in my hand and an expression of glassy half-interest on my face, I overheard the words, "Yes, I am very interested in history, in fact I'm sending my book to agents at the moment. Of course, they all turned it down..." I must have let that smirk of recognition cross my face, because the person being told about the book saw me and said desperately, "Phil's a writer, aren't you, Phil?" Damn. I feigned surprise and delight and went over.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm always glad to help writers with their work, nothing gives me greater pleasure, but I've learned that often people don't want to hear the answers to their questions. I used to get this in a former life when I sat in on the advice shops at Computer Shopper shows with members of the public dropping by to ask us "experts" technical questions about their computers. Most of the time people just wanted professional verification they were a bona fide clever dick, and took offence when we inferred they were only half right.
After my first few mild bits of advice were parried, I relaxed and I was okay listening politely and nodding while looking for an opening to slide back into the warm embrace of the Aga. Then the guy said something which struck a chord, something I've heard aspiring writers say before. He said, "I don't read anyone else's stuff because I don't want it to influence me."
Having nothing better to do at that point I started to analyse it. Why would you say something like that? EITHER you are dissembling to cover up a lack of research OR you believe that you might be accused of copying someone else's style. It all sounds like posturing to my ears. Either answer tells you something about how little the speaker knows about the mechanisms and lubrications of good writing.
First of all, Mr Writer at a party, you should be so lucky to be as good as the people who inspire you, and if you ARE as good you won't be like them, you'll be like you. Second of all, it doesn't make you sound like an artist to deny any outside influence, it just makes you sound like a jackass. And lastly, very few people are such complete and perfect geniuses they can support meaningful output without meaningful input.
It's difficult to write about this without frothing at the mouth a little bit. Of course, influence and inspiration go hand in hand. You are the product of your influences. You want to do what you do because someone you like does it well. That's influences. But inspiration?
Inspiration is listening to a piece of music and painting a picture. Or reading a novel and writing a song. Or dancing about geography. It's the world around you, the art and social networking and general human walking about and interacting we do every day. Of course, it would be wrong to copy any of the ideas out of a book that you read. But reading a story by somebody, having a response to it, a mood if you like, and getting the urge to take that mood and do something else with it? That's inspiration.
Bathe yourself in influences, drink and eat art and science and music and words. Take all these moods, your responses to the things you consume, and note them all down. The things you have passion for, the things that are you, will stick. The stuff that's not you will fall away. Eventually, ideas being what they are, some will start to cohere, and you will start to get a piece of art that is the sum of your parts.
Learning how to suck the juice out of the best of culture, pour it in your pen and write your own story with it is what it means to be a writer.
Phil South has been a writer and film-maker for 26 years. He started in consumer technology journalism, also known as playing computer games and writing jokes for magazines like Your Sinclair, Computer Shopper and Mac User. After a spell making animated web sites for Disney Channel UK, he now teaches film-making and photography at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. While waiting to have time to make the ultimate British cult movie, he writes the creativity blog Going Down Writing and the Creative Genius Newsletter, which you can subscribe to via his blog. Phil is also on Twitter - here is a link to his Twitter homepage.
Many thanks to Phil for an interesting and thought-provoking article. Do you agree that creativity is best fostered by immersing yourself in other influences, or do you prefer to keep your inspiration pure and unsullied? I'd love to read your response to Phil's article as a comment below!
Photo credit: H.Koppdelaney on Flickr.