I am an eager sponge. I think many great artists are. We are inspired and thrilled by the art around us and want to create something of our own. It’s a cycle of absorbing and creating.
It’s impossible, then, to not become influenced by the art you’re absorbing. We do not create in a void. Some like to pretend they do, like these influences are shameful and somehow lessen their own artistic originality. I find this sad. I am very passionate about the things I love (I even have a webpage for it) and all of them have influenced me in one way or another.
I really love how openly Conan O’Brien spoke about this at his Commencement Address at Dartmouth College in 2011. He said, “Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star, easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn't. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are. My peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.”
No matter how hard I try I will never be the perfect amalgamation of my idols or their wonderful works, but that failing is what makes my work original.
So, for Christmas I want to explore some of the wonderful and inspiring gifts I’ve received while absorbing art over the years. These gifts have influenced my own art, whether or not they can be clearly seen in the final products I create.
Day 1: the Gift of Wonder
Like any popular kid, Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings were pretty much the only things that mattered to me growing up.
The first movies I ever saw were Star Wars. I’m not even remotely exaggerating. I was a preschooler when I first watched them with my dad. He loves to tell this story about me in kindergarten being asked to provide a word starting with the letter “h” and offering the response “Hoth: as in the ice planet.” In the years to follow, I proceeded to read as many Extended Universe books as I could find and make my Luke Skywalker action figure take Barbie on a date, regardless of the extreme height difference.
That is, until my friend introduced me to the Lord of the Rings in middle school. I remember finishing the books with a sense of wonder I’d never felt before. All I knew is I wanted to create something that could make others feel the same way I did while reading them.
These stories were grand in a way that surpassed anything reality could offer. In these worlds...
Regular folks could go on an epic adventure.
A ring could turn you invisible.
Magic life-like dragon fireworks could rain down from the sky. (These ruined normal fireworks for me.)
The Millennium Falcon could make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.
The force could help you do amazing things.
A woman could be a bad-ass and save her scruffy nerf-herder of a knight.
These stories taught me to think about the world with a bright curiosity. They opened wide all possibilities. Throughout high school I created story after story and world after world. I explored different genres and had no regard for the way stories had to be told or where inspiration had to come from. I just created. My freest thinking was during this time, because I didn’t feel tied down by the laws of the universe. I still have all the notes and chapters I’d written in binders in my closet. Occasionally I pull them out when I get too serious about my current work.
One of the earliest storytelling gifts I received was the gift of wonder and I hope it never leaves me.