Outside The Copying Spiral

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-01-07 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

Most every author I've known personally, myself included, had a period where most everything they wrote was a copy, whether writ large or small, of one of their influences. All the explicit riffing I did on Hubert Selby and Stanisław Lem and PKD is, I hope, behind me by now, but man if there wasn't a time where everything that came out felt like an homage in the worst possible way. If what I'm writing now isn't any good, at least it's my own brand of not-any-good.

So how do you get out of the spiral of copying your influences to producing original work? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall, I guess: practice. And by incrementally moving your window of work away from your idols.

I've come to identify two key things in this process. The first is accepting that you don't have to get out from under the shadow of your influences right away, but that you do have to get out eventually. Each time you start something new — maybe even each time you sit down at the keys, period — you have to look for a way to step that much further away from your influences, and that much further towards whatever you can call your own.

An important part of this process is knowing what it is that you glean from your influences, and finding out how to find that on your own without them. PKD's big overriding obsession was what it meant for something to be real. From that I gleaned my own similar concern — the nature of the individual in relation to the rest of creation — and tried to work my own investigations on that subject into my fiction. With Lem it was about how he used the general frameworks of SF as vehicles for greater, more philosophical concerns — that the future is a place where we have no choice but to think differently about ourselves and our world.

Eventually I found that every great author I wanted to emulate, I could only take inspiration from by finding some parallel between their concerns and mine in my own life. I had to learn whatever great lesson they had to teach, and learn it on my own personalized terms.

This leads me to the second key part of the process: it's about one's maturation apart from being a writer, about improving the integrative interface between being a writer and everything else in your life.

When I was younger, and quicker to judgment, I often said things (both to myself and others) along the lines of "Copying is a sign of immaturity." I know now it can be at least as much a sign of inexperience, a sign that someone just doesn't yet know how to nurture and develop their own ideas. And for some people that inexperience is chronic, because they find it less painful to just emulate other work out there than to dig within. (Self-censorship manifests in many ways; creative paralysis is common, but not the only way.)

I sometimes wonder if this whole phenomenon is why one of the ways we hype people is to say they're the next this or the next that. It's a lazy, thoughtless formulation, but a popular one, because it's always easier to talk about someone in relation to other, familiar things (even at the cost of doing violence to what they actually are) than to speak of their truly personal qualities. And so when people set out to create something, their sense of how to mold themselves is already trained to emulate others, to strive to be called the next X or the next Y, even if they aren't conscious of it.

The more aware we become of what we actually are, the more we will be able to embody that, and the less we will need to seek validation or comparison from others as the only way forward.

Tags: Hubert Selby Jr. Philip K. Dick Stanisław Lem creativity creators