Imitation: The Gateway to Inspiration

mindset Sep 13, 2022

In 1650, Spanish painter Diego Velázquez was commissioned by Pope Innocent X to paint a portrait of his.

Three centuries later, another artist would attempt to recreate it. Despite never having seen this painting in person, the Irish artist Francis Bacon would repaint it, over and over again, completing a total of 50 paintings during the 1950s and 1960s.

During the summer of 1957, another famous artist, Pablo Picasso, was inspired by Velázquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas.

The first thing I wrote that actually got me quite a bit of exposure was a novella called “An Emperor’s Will.” I wrote it when I was 16 years old, and I won a National Literary Contest. And a lot of published writers read it and loved it. On an online workshop frequented by some of the best SF and Fantasy writers in Romania, it received mostly positive reviews.

The problem?

It was written in a style that eerily resembled that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

One more thing about this novella… it was the first time when I wrote like crazy. I finished it in 30 hours. I didn’t get much sleep. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

You could say that I was obsessed with this story, with the way I managed to write in the style and manner of one of my favorite authors.

One of the most important lessons we learn quite late in our creative career is this: it is not until we become obsessed with someone else's work of art that we are able to create our most inspired work.

How to Find Inspiration

One of the most valuable writing skills is the ability to generate ideas. Another one is the ability to punch the damn keys until we turn our idea into a story.

But we often struggle with this. We feel that we have to be original. We purposefully decide to turn our backs on the creative genius of all those before us.

We stare at the blank page and try to turn it into a story through sheer power of will.

Here's the thing.

We need to think of creativity in a different way.

Think of it as a river. It starts off as a weak stream. As more and more tributaries increase its volume, it becomes a proper river.

We can only create our most inspired work if we let ourselves be inspired by all the creative work of those who came before us.

Now, let's apply this to writing:

At the beginning of a writing session, instead of blankly staring at your computer until you want to throw it out the window, you start with someone else's words. A paragraph, an intriguing sentence. You think of a scene that you've been thinking about over and over again, like a song stuck on repeat.

And you begin to write. Instead of trying to suppress these plagiarizing thoughts, you embrace them.

After a while, a bit of magic starts to happen. Once you've written a couple of paragraphs like someone else, you begin to write like yourself.

Here's why: Your creative brain takes over, connecting seemingly unrelated dots, and a sublime sense of inspiration emerges from your subconscious mind.

There's no feeling quite like it, and it's regrettable that most writers resist this urge for fear of actually plagiarizing someone else.

Rather than worrying whether you're going to copy-paste someone else's work, you should understand the process for what it is:

  • Your work starts off as a weak imitation of someone else's work.
  • Your creative brain soon takes over, adding elements it knows are good enough.
  • As you add more and more elements, and as you spend more time thinking about the original idea, your story diverges, becoming something entirely different.

But this is the trick, and this is what both Bacon and Picasso did: they simply used another's work as a framework for creating a new work of art, something they could identify with, something they could call their own.

The Secret? Mental Effort

The only secret to this is that once you find an idea that truly inspires you, then you've got to think about it, truly make it your own.

So, yes, it takes a lot of mental effort, but it's still better than trying to create something out of nothing.

The foundation is already there, you just have to make sure you're not trying to break down someone else's house so you can use the same bricks.

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