Are You Using Everything You Know?

"You'll use everything you ever knew."
- Johnny Carson (to Steve Martin, from Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up)

You are unique.  I know that sounds like hippie bullshit, but it's true.  Your set of experiences is different than anyone else's.  Instead of trying to copy someone else, why not be yourself?

Here's the rub though;

You discover who you are by copying others.  

Well, not necessarily copying.  Let's call it inspiration.  You model yourself after the artists that excite you.  As a creator, you've probably gone through a million phases.  I know I have.  

Here's an abbreviated list of musicians who inspired me:
  1. Def Leppard 
  2. White Lion
  3. Winger
  4. Mr. Big
  5. Queensryche
  6. Steve Vai
  7. Joe Satriani
  8. Rush
  9. Steve Morse
  10. Dream Theater
  11. Yes
  12. King Crimson
  13. Spock's Beard
  14. Led Zeppelin
  15. The Gin Blossoms
  16. The Beatles
  17. Crowded House
  18. John Mayer
  19. Jon Brion
  20. The Grays
  21. Butch Walker
  22. Nick Drake
  23. Kelly Joe Phelps
  24. Peter Mulvey
  25. Jeffrey Foucault
  26. Michael Hedges
  27. Jerry Douglas
  28. Tim O'Brien
  29. Planxty
  30. Chris Thile
  31. Bill Frisell
  32. David Torn
  33. Bjork
  34. Sigur Ros
  35. Air
  36. Many, many more.

I've been influenced by everything from hair metal to folk, prog rock to electronica, bluegrass to The Beatles, and everything in between.  I'd become obsessed with something, strive hard to play or write in that style, then move on to something else.

Every time I abandoned one of these pursuits, I would inevitably enter a period of self loathing.  I'd feel like a quitter and a dilettante.  Years later, I realized each one of these phases had an important impact on me as an artist.  

If I never got past Def Leppard, than my music would still sound like...Def Leppard.  Or I'd be in a Def Leppard cover band.  Or I'd be wearing spandex, and I don't have the ass for spandex.

Consciously or not, you absorb something from every artist that inspires you.  But it can't be calculated.  You can't say: "I'll mix Tolkien's world building, Terry Pratchett's sense of humor and George R.R. Martin's beard into one delicious, hirsute, New York Times best selling stew.  It's more subtle than that.  

You have to live, experience, work and create... continuously.  

Eventually, you'll figure out who you are.  As Johnny Carson said, you'll use everything you ever knew... and emerge with the unique voice that the world needs you to share.

So I ask you...

Who are your influences?

What did you learn from them?

Let me know by replying in the comments below.

Have a great week!
John Anealio

12 comments:

  1. My early influencers were Robert Heinlein and J. Krishnamurti. I literally carried books by each of them (Stranger in a Strange Land and Think on These Things, respectively) around with me. Now, in many cases, my influencers are people I know or things I observe or overhear. And too many authors to list, like you have too many musicians to list.

    Good question John - nice post.

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    1. Thanks for sharing Brenda!

      It's funny how we become so consumed with what inspires us. I remember plastering my high school locker with posters of these little known guitarists that I listed above. It was my identity.

      Now though, I count many of the people that I associate with online as influences, and I couldn't be happier about it. :-)

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  2. What a nice post!

    I have been influenced by my favorite authors, but my biggest influences are Edith Hamilton's Mythology (like Brenda, I carried that book EVERYWHERE as a kid!) and Douglas Adams. I'm a big fan of classic scifi, especially Heinlein and Harry Harrison. I have specific books that I've read so often the ideas are deeply ingrained in me, especially Flatland and Rudy Rucker's NF book, The Fourth Dimension. I've also gone through my Stephen King phase, Peter Straub phase, and many more. Plus now, I read a ton of flash fiction online, so that's a big influence as well.

    I liked reading about your influences!

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    1. Thanks Cathy!

      Even if we have similar influences, we're always a little different. Combine that all with varied life experiences and outlook and everyone is capable of having a unique voice.

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  3. My early influences were Norse & Greek mythology -- we had a large-format illustrated book of each in my school library which I checked out over and over again throughout my elementary years -- and fairy tales of all stripes. When I got a little older it was Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder who gave me the life story "girl grows up to be writer". Then Tolkien got me into fantasy and Star Wars got me into sci-fi, and it was all downhill from there!

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    1. Excellent! That's an awesome mix Trina. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. This reminds me of a post from Neil Gaiman's blog about finding writing of his from when he was a teenager. It sounded a lot like the writing of writers who he admired. However, he was pleased that at least he had been writing.

    If you had asked me this question six months ago, I would have said Stephen King first. People probably wouldn't notice this in my writing style, but he definitely inspired me. However, I just reread Dune recently and realized how much it influenced my writing - both for better and worse. It took me a while go get over some of the less awesome aspects of his style, but I can't deny that Frank Herbert changed my life.

    I'm also lucky enough to have friends who inspire me and who have taught me a lot. One of the best pieces of advice I got was when a friend said, "You can't do everything. You have to choose." Well, this is kind of obvious, but I realized that I _had_ been trying to do everything. It was some kind of superwoman complex that made me think that if I just could squeeze two more hobbies into my already packed day then I would have it all. It wasn't working, and everything was suffering for it. It was a good lesson.

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    1. Hi Felicia!

      Your thoughts seem to echo a lot of the feedback that I've been getting; your early influences inspire you, you start to do your own thing and that get influenced by your peers. There's definitely something there.

      And you're right, you can't do everything. That still something that I'm working on. :-)

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  5. Monty Python, Weird Al, and Animaniacs. :D That influences my music writing. :D

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  6. Nice post!

    Musically: Rachmaninoff for expression, Amy Grant and Indigo Girls for meaningful but rhyming lyrics, NIN for tapping into all emotions, Stone Temple Pilots for what I sound like in my head, though it never comes out that way to anyone else ;)

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    1. Thanks Rebecca! That's a pretty wide range of influences (that makes perfect sense to me), but I wouldn't think about any of those artists when listening to you. Which is what's great about all of this. We take what we like, filter it through who we are and it comes at as something else completely.

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