Learning what inspired your heroes, and how that can inspire you too

Photo: Pexels from Pixabay

Artists and writers are constantly on the search for new ways to spark creativity. Through a lifetime of reading all manner of biographies and histories, I have uncovered many new muses. In reading about the artists that inspired my own heroes, I have found sources of fresh writing, sounds, visuals, techniques, subjects — everything an open mind craves.

I am a fiend for that sort of thing — letters, correspondence, daily routines. Anything that helps me gain a deeper understanding of a figure I admire, who they were as a person and how their day-to-day existence may have contributed to their art.

It’s why I love sites like Letters of Note and Daily Routines. They allow me to visualise a genius at work and take comfort when noting similarities with my own routine (or lack thereof).

There is always some cognitive dissonance in this. It may be my impulse to learn as much as possible about a creator, but I know that finding out the hour a writer got up in the morning won’t help me understand their work on a deeper level¹, nor will it help me in my own endeavours.

It won’t stop me from feeling a bond with fellow night owls, but I concur with the rational voice telling me that the routine does not make the artist.

That does not invalidate the value of reading an artist’s personal thoughts and opinions. From those we still have much to learn.

Photo: Hermann Traub from Pixabay

It is natural to look to admired figures for inspiration. Most of the time we find it in the works they created. But when we have devoured the books or scratched the records to ribbons, the next step is often to investigate the things that inspired them.

I have done this with countless artists, but I’ll choose one example to illustrate my point. In my early teens I became enamoured with The Stone Roses’ classic self-titled debut.

Listening to each song multiple times over many nights was once enough to sate my thirst, but after a while I needed to find out what ingredients could produce such a luminary effect.

Luckily, the album had come out about fifteen years before my obsession began, and it was the subject of countless books and articles.

I bought whatever I could, and emerged with a listen list comprised of everything from The Byrds to Public Enemy. Cue the same process for those bands.

It is a method of discovery I still use to this day. It has led to me to countless songs, books and movies I might not have had the chance to experience otherwise.

This process has also enabled me to learn more about important artists and the way they were able to hone those inspirations into something new.

Prince expresses less-than-favourable views about other musicians in “The Beautiful Ones”. Photo: Scott Penner

There are pitfalls to this approach. Inspirational figures obtain a special place in our lives because something about them appeals to us, or because we recognise their outsize talent. The trouble is when we begin to elevate them to sainthood, before the Devil’s Advocate stage of canonisation.

So far, this article has focused on what artists like. Their dislikes can exert an equally powerful influence if we are not careful. When his memoir was released last year, Prince made headlines for his negative opinions on Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran, catalogued in The Beautiful Ones. If we are truly in thrall to an artist, we might be tempted to mirror their opinions, for fear of not being in concurrence with genius.²

My personal experience with this negative influence arose from the early stages of my Shane MacGowan fandom.³

At 12-years-old, I thought The Pogues frontman to be the definition of raw talent. His vocals were rough, the band was the perfect blend of punk aggression and folk simplicity, and songs like “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes” had literary qualities most novelists would struggle to match.

Shane MacGowan may be a genius, but he is definitely not infallible. Photo: Wikimedia.

I bought an interview book, A Drink with Shane MacGowan, and learnt about writers and artists I love to this day: Brendan Behan, Seán Ó Riada, Augustus Pablo, amongst many others.

I also learnt that I should not like WB Yeats, who MacGowan proclaimed as overrated. This was an opinion I was reluctant to oppose, as if fearful I’d one day have my own drink with Shane, express my love of Yeats and receive a glass across my face.

It took me a while to shake off this sort of thing, forge my own identity and gain the confidence to disagree with my heroes. After all, what if one of them loved an artist and the other hated them? How would I square the difference?

These days, having read and studied WB Yeats, I’m able to say that I love much of his work while having a dislike of the man and the territory he explored in his later work. This is a view I have arrived at myself, and at this point in my life I have learned that a pronouncement from the artistic on-high is not a rule for life.

This critical independence is something I value not just in the artistic world, but in nearly every level of life (excluding those disciplines I have no clue about!).

It can difficult to escape early influences and find your own voice. Photo: Pexels from Pixabay

For creative types, the struggle to escape these influences and make some original may be a very difficult one. Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote about “the anxiety of influence” — the psychological stress suffered by artists suffocated by the long list of landmarks that precede them.

For those seeking inspiration from their heroes’ personal halls of fame, the lesson lies in identifying what parts they drew upon and what parts they discarded.

Take a look at Hunter S Thompson’s career. The pioneer of gonzo journalism began his journey in a much more conventional way. His early reporting career was marked by his literary aspirations, particularly his admiration for Ernest Hemingway.

It is all there in the expansive descriptions catalogued in an article exploring his early work. In that piece, Brian Kevin opines that

“Thompson’s early journalism is both uniformly excellent and every bit as “traditional” as that of the other accomplished reporters joining him in Kentucky’s Journalism Hall of Fame.”

Within a few years, Thompson’s own voice would become stronger. His first work of full-length non-fiction, 1967’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs is one of his most impressive in terms of literary quality.

It balances his artistic influences (check out his descriptions of riding on the road with the Angels, or his outsider’s view of their mass gatherings) with the subjective, part-of-the-story mode that would come to fruition in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

At that point, the balance was skewed and Thompson’s unique style was in full motion. His writing was hallucinatory, his approach blurred fact and fiction, reporting and pure imagination.

It was far removed from Hemingway’s stark prose. It is a prime example of an artist escaping the anxiety of influence and contributing something original to the world. It is also why gonzo journalism will always be made under Thompson’s shadow.

It is worth noting that Thompson also makes a case for keeping early inspirations around as an anchor. Without the disciplining influence of his literary heroes, Thompson indulged his worst impulses and allowed his self-expression to curdle into self-indulgence. There is no need to imitate your muses’ style, but remembering their best points is a good way to keep your writing from spiralling into excess.

Tracing how your own heroes came to their position is an enthralling way of discovering new artists. Whether its your favourite writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters, video game designers — anything that you have a creative interest in — working out an artistic genealogy helps you appreciate them on a deeper level.

It is also helps you to spot where they got things wrong. Once you find yourself disagreeing, you will also discover a part of your own voice. There is a reason you think your hero is wrong, and its because you are drawn to a trait they abandoned.

Once you have a greater understanding of how influences can inspire and suffocate, you can begin the process of finding your own voice. It’s not an easy process. It’s a lifelong struggle a lot of us may never complete. But knowing how it works is an important tool in artistic evolution.

[1] There are exceptions. I’m fairly certain that Franz Kafka’s punishing working hours strongly influenced his claustrophobic view of employment.

[2] In this case I do happen to agree with Prince, but not just because he said so. Even The Purple One got some things wrong.

[3] Which continues unabated to this day.

Writer from Ireland, with an interest in politics, culture and the arts.

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