Transcending Your Influences?

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In a recent discussion with Serdar, the idea of writer’s “transcending their influences” came up. You know the idea – to go beyond your influences into something your own, avoid their limits or being derivative, etc. For some reason, it made me uncomfortable.

My discomfort told me there was something to analyze here. Why did the idea of “transcending one’s influences” as a writer give me that unpleasant sense of discomfort? It didn’t take long for me to figure out why.

It’s because I’ve seen this phrase and phrases like this used in ways that were actually pathological.

A few examples came to mind:

Treating influences as the enemy. Many is the time I met an artist or writer who acted as if their influences were somehow bad, as if they were cages or foundations. I worried that they’d spend so much time not being something they’d never be who they were now, and who they could be. It felt like childish rebellion.

Treating influences as things you can discard. You can’t just toss influences away. They’re there, period, possibly even for good reasons. Acting as if you can just walk away from them (as opposed to incorporating them, finding others, adapting over time) seemed futile.

Leaving influences before you’re ready. Influences present a lot of opportunity to explore them – often in ways the influencer did not. I don’t like to see artists of whatever kind work so hard to get away they ignore new paths they could find in the work that inspired them.

Lack of self-awareness. Wanting to get away from an influence may mean you don’t take the time to understand why they’re an influence, what they did (and didn’t) do for you and so on. Escape may limit self-awareness – and if you’re trying to get away from a bad influence, you might just find a new one.

Arrogance. Sometimes when I hear people talk of transcending influences, it seems to be arrogant (possibly hiding insecurity). They are above these influences. They can be better than others still enslaved to influences, etc. They don’t need influences (like we can get away from them).

I am all for artists and writers and all creatives growing and developing. I expect them to keep evolving. This will mean, in time, they will grow into their own people, and the influences they have become more foundations or waypoints than what they do.

I think I’ve been concerned there’s too much pathology around the idea of transcending one’s influences. That people harm themselves or limit themselves while trying to overcome limits that often aren’t limits, just phases they’re in.

Well that was productive. I feel like I’ve learned something about myself – and perhaps transcended a limit . . .

Steven Savage