Reading a recent interview with French book illustrator Didier Graffet, I found myself pausing at this line: "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work," he says, "but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."
Today, I'd like to reflect on both ends of that sentence. First, on the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us. And second, on that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.
Let's start with the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart: those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.
Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.
Our daughter, for example, trained as chef by apprenticing in Alyn Williams' Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Learning to cook as Williams' cooked, which she was expected to do without deviation, was the first step toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art.
Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work...until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.
J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own.
Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia; or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (and would you have guessed that last one?). Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.
The second part of Didier Graffet's comment is important too, however. There comes a time when an artist needs to stop looking at others' work.
This happens periodically throughout life, I think; there are periods of time when it's useful to read, look at, listen to, and otherwise submerge ourselves in the creations of others, and periods when we need to tune it all out in order to fully focus on our own. But what I want to examine in particular is that potent moment in the life of a budding writer or painter when we first deliberately turn our gaze away from the work of our mentors and heroes in order to follow the muse into the landscape of our own imagination.
For any serious creative artist, this act of "turning away" from influence and onto the path of ones own work is crucial -- it separates the men from the boys, as it were; the women from the girls; the student/apprentice from the artist. It is a vital moment in our creative journey -- but here's the rub: it's a moment that can't be forced; it can only happen when the time is right. Some people find their personal vision and artistic direction at a relatively young age; others search it for years; and others still, a lifetime. It comes when it comes, that magical moment when you finally start to understand what you have to say to the world through your art, and the ways that you alone can say it. When the voices of your creative heroes dim and you hear your own voice at last.
These days, deep into my middle age, I have been wandering the length and breadth of my inner landscape for so long now that it takes an effort to cast myself back to the early days of my career, when that landscape hadn't fully opened to me yet. I recall it as a fretful period of time, producing work that was earnest but derivative, and I felt myself lost in the forest of artistic influences all around me. I had a deep, urgent, passionate connection to the books and poems and paintings that I loved, and my deepest desire in all the world was to make art like that too. But that art had been crafted from lives, times, and experiences that were nothing like my own; my feeble attempts to walk in the footsteps of William Morris, say, or Vanessa Bell, or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or any of my other creative heroes had value as learning exercises, yes...but as art? Well, no; not so much. Yet it seemed that every new trail that I traveled on in my beloved forest of Mythic Arts had already been neatly sign-posted, and always by someone older, wiser, better, than me. I knew, theoretically, that what I needed to do was go out there and blaze my own damn trail...but I didn't yet know how to do such a thing, and I feared that I never would.
What I didn't quite understand was that I was still in the apprenticeship stage of my creative journey. I was honing my skills, stirring my soup -- which needed more time to simmer, despite my impatience to dish it out and serve it up. I was not only learning how to write and paint, I was accumulating life experience so that once I'd acquired those hard-won skills I'd have something to say with them. My soup was made from good, rich stock, but it needed spices still unknown to me, ingredients I had yet to gather. And even when those flavors were finally added, it needed time to cook.
When I speak with young writers and artists who are eager to find their own direction, to move out of the long shadow of the artists who have gone before them, what they want is the magic word, the key, the secret handshake that will make this happen. And in fact, there is a magic word, but it's not one that anyone really wants to hear, not in this fast-paced, digital, mobile, media-saturated age we're living in, for the word is patience.
Poet Rainer M. Rilke had this to say about time, patience, and the making of art: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”
A friend of mine who has worked with some of the greatest opera singers in the world explained to me that in her profession there's a term for ripening as an artist: it's called "finding your voice." It's understood that this can happen fully only with age and experience, and as a result many singers are in their 30s or 4os before they develop into the world-class artists they are destined to be. As literary and visual artists, we too must find our voices, and this doesn't usually happen fast.
No young artist wants to hear this, of course. I certainly didn't when I was starting out. We want to find our vision, our style, our success, our bestseller, our Newbery winner, our American Dream, and we want to find it now. To be sure, there are young prodigies who produce good (or at least popular) work at a tender age, and in our youth-fixated culture they are often singled out for particular attention. But there are many, many more of us whose voices ripen with age as opera singers' do. And by the time we're producing truly good work, we're older and greyer in the book jacket photos; it's impossible to promote us as the latest hot young thing. But that doesn't matter. It's the work that matters. If it's good, then it is worth the wait.
It is my belief that the muse can't be forced. She comes when we're ready; or when she deems us worthy; or perhaps she just comes when she damn well wants to come. She can't be forced but she can be coaxed, and there are things that make a visitation much more likely: Practicing our craft, mastering our materials, showing up at our desks each day and working. Reading, looking, listening,and experiencing the world around us. We have to breathe the world into ourselves before we can breathe it out in our art; it's a circular motion. Inhale. Exhale. Artists who don't practice the art of living alongside the practice of their craft rarely do their best work, it seems to me. They've forgotten how to breathe.
Part of what we breathe in, of course, is the influence of the work of other artists. There are times, as we've discussed earlier, when this can be a good and helpful thing -- and there are other times when it's not, and it's rather important, I think, to learn the difference. Now I'm not claiming that every artist experiences this distinct passage from imitative/apprentice work to originality -- there are, of course, those blessed souls who seem to step out of the very womb fully formed. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I'd like to speak about my own experience as a developing artist in order to see if I can shed more light on this difficult stretch of the creative journey.
For me, as a young writer and painter, there came a time when I realized that the voices and visions in my head, created by the books and art I loved, were drowning out the sound of my own voice: so tentative then, so quiet, so unsure of its right to be heard. I remember a long grey time of casting about for a way of making art that seemed truly my own -- not imitation Rackham, not warmed-over Angela Carter, not wannabe Edward Burne-Jones. I was trying each of their styles on like trying on clothes in a vintage shop (something I did a lot of in those days too), looking for a style, an era, a borrowed glamour that would suit me. But unlike a fashion style, one's personal artistic vision is not something you find or chose. You can't shop for it in the marketplace of ideas. It grows within you.
For some people it grows slowly. You can look at their early art or writing and see clearly each small, steady step that has led them out of the shadow of influence and onto the path of their own work. For others, the change happens suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, usually provoked by an outside circumstance: the discovery of a new medium, for example; the influence of a new teacher or a mentor; or a life event, whether large or small, that pushes the artist in a new direction. I am definitely in the latter camp. It wasn't a slow change for me; I can date the exact period of time when I turned abruptly away from imitating my heroes and started making art that felt like my own. It happened suddenly, with the force of an earthquake. And it happened because I moved to the desert.
Until that time, I'd always faced firmly East, living in New York City and Boston and gazing across the ocean to Europe. Everything I loved -- from the fairy tales I'd adored as a child to the art I poured over, the books I read, the Victorian-era history I devoured, the fiddle-and-harp folk music I craved, the ivy-draped landscape that moved my heart -- was European, primarily rooted in France and the British Isles.
It was sheer happenstance that I traveled West to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona -- an alien, inhospitable place that held no romance, no allure for me; and sheer happenstance that I stayed there long enough to lose myself to it, both heart and soul. I won't go into the details of how and why that happened here -- I've writtten a whole novel about it, after all. (Well, not a novel about me, exactly, for the protagonist of The Wood Wife is a woman very different from myself -- but a novel about my experience of being seduced by a strange and powerful landscape, and how this can impact ones life and art.)
The point that I want to make here is that my muse finally came to me in a place that was stripped of the many familiar influences with which I'd clothed my creative life: the colors and scents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the green moss palette of the English woods. And I think this was no accident. There's something about leaving ones comfort zone and traveling into the great unknown that sets the spark to the tinder of our inner fires, helping us to see the world, and ourselves, and thus also our art, from an entirely new perspective. It was a kind of shock to find myself in love with a whole new landscape, a whole new color palette, a whole new region of history and stories -- and in that shock, the door finally opened into the realm of my true work. It's a realm that has its mossy green corners, yes, and its Burne-Jones rose vines and twisty Rackham trees, but which turns out to hold so much more besides -- like the smell of cottonwood burning in a ceremonial fire on a cold desert night, and the taste of fry bread, and the prickle of cactus, and the tip-tapping of tiny hooves as javelina whisper through a moonlit wash. And in the stirring together of all these things -- rose vines and cactus, English thyme and desert sage, my broth finally turned into a proper soup: the distinctive taste of the tales I tell and the books I write and the paintings I paint. Mind you, it happened about ten years later that I'd wanted it to happen as an anxious young artist, but it happened, that's the important thing. And it couldn't have done so a single day sooner. The flavors of mesquite, mole, and fire-roasted green chillis were all still missing.
To those of you reading these words who have already found the path of your personal vision, I'd be curious to know when and how that happened. And to those of you still waiting for the pathway to open: Take heart and have patience. It will happen. It may be that a vital ingredient of your soup is still missing, but it will come -- often in some unexpected way. And when it does, I feel honor-bound to warn you, it may surprise you. The work that you find yourself called to do may not be what you ever expected; it may not even be entirely what you wanted. (Hey, I wanted to paint like Burne-Jones or Waterhouse, yet it's bird and fox and bunny girls that are stubbornly determined to come through my hands.) Patrica Hampl expressed it best in this passage taken from The Writer on Her Work: "Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."
So go ahead, breathe those influences in. There's nothing wrong with influence, and with finding inspiration in the work of others. But when it's time (and you'll know when it's time), don't be afraid to leave that forest, to face in a new and unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable direction, and to listen for the quiet sound of your own voice. You'll find the way, I promise. Just remember to keep breathing.
And then get back to work.
About the art at the top this post: In the field of Mythic Arts, we walk in the footsteps of countless storytellers, writers, painters, and other creative souls who have gone before us. To honor them, I keep a bulletin board in my studio full of works by the men and women who are my muses, much like the bulletin board above. These are just some of creative folk whose work provides daily inspiration (from top to bottom, right to left): Arthur Rackham, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kay Nielsen. Sulamith Wulfing, Dorothea Tanning, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo's drawings, James McNeil Whistler. Adrienne Segur, Holbein's drawings, John William Waterhouse. Jessie M. King, photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe, Edmund Dulac. Gwen John, Remedios Varo, Susan Seddon Boulet, Lizbeth Zwerger & Beatrix Potter, Frances MacDonald. Vanessa Bell at her easel (by Duncan Grant); photographs of William Morris, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Paula Rego at her easel.
About the photographs: The Dartmoor photographs here are by the great rural photographer James Ravilious (1939-1999), who lived and worked in Devon, England. You can see more of his photographs on the James Ravilious website, and watch a lovely trailer for a film about him here. The Desert photographs here are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the Fezziwig Press site to see more of his beautiful work. All rights reserved by Stu Jenks and the James Ravilious estate.
About the text: The essay above first appeared on Myth & Moor in January, 2011. All rights reserved by the author.