I've just finished reading Kent Nerburn's Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Art & Life, and I'd like to pass on a final passage from the book discussing artistic influence -- not as a thing to be wary of but, rather, to be celebrated. He writes:
"One of the great joys of the creative life is getting to live in dialogue with works of genius that have been created by artists who have proceeded us. We observe their work across the barriers of time and space, and they become our brothers and sisters who have walked a path that shows us, however dimly, our own way forward.
"I remember vividly the exhilaration I felt in my teenage years when I first encountered Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Night Flight. For the first time, I realized that writing was more than topic sentences and supporting statements. I would hide under my covers at night and try, by lamplight, in my own stumbling way, to create sentences that sang like his.
"And then there was the moment when I came across a stream-of-consciousness passage in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath that was like no prose I had read before. For weeks, in the hidden pages of my school notebook, I struggled to describe the world around me in the same fragmentary, cinematic manner. The experience came again as I read the works of Carl Sandburg and, later, studied the sculptures of Donatello. These artists spoke to me across time and space and became my secret friends and mentors. In my heart of hearts I dreamed of creating like they could create, and I did what I could to learn the secrets that lived inside their works.
"We who work in the arts stand unashamedly upon the shoulders of those who came before. In the secrecy of our creative lives we try to do what those who have inspire us have done. We trace their lines, we copy their movements; we mimic their prose, we practice their phrasings. Whether with a brush or a chisel, our body or a pen or our voices, we try to enter into their creative decisions by recreating those decisions in our own work.
"It is not mere copying; it is mentoring. It is letting our hands and hearts and minds be guided by theirs. To know how Nureyev achieved the muscularity of his expression, or how Donatello carved a risk, or how Willie Nelson phrased a song, we must attempt it ourselves. We must inhabit the experience and try to make it our own in order to see the choices that were made. We are, in effect letting them become our teachers."
This is exactly what I was trying to get at in an essay of mine, "On Influence," published back in 2011. You can find it here. Ten years on from writing that piece, I'd love to hear your thoughts about artistic influence and the role it has (or hasn't) played in the development of your work.
Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. The poem in the picture captions is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013); all rights reserved by the Levertov estate.