Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Genealogy of Ideas

The great thing about remote or dead masters is that they can't refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.  
~ Austin Kleon
I picked up Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon on Rachel's emphatic recommendation, and the recommendation was a good one. It's not so much a how-to as it is a fresh slant on different aspects of creativity, and for me, reading it involved a lot of recognition: "Yes, I do that sometimes...yes, I've experienced that...yes, I've wondered about that...That's a good way of putting it." Remember my recent post about feeling like an imposter? That's in there too. And one of the passages that had me nodding my head the most was one of the same quotes Rachel highlighted in her post—this one:

"Just as you have a familial genealogy, you have a genealogy of ideas. You don't get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life."

I've always felt that way. That's why it's fun to look at somebody's bookshelves or CD collection (or in our modern age, their Pinterest boards, maybe) and see what it is that inspires them. Just putting my mp3 player on shuffle or flipping through the pages of my Book Lover's Diary is a kaleidoscopic look at the myriad things that have informed my own creativity. And you know what else that passage made me think of? The bit in The Day I Became an Autodidact where Kendall Hailey impulsively fills a page with the names of more than a hundred people who inspired her writing and acting. That was her genealogy of ideas. And I've got mine.

A.A. Milne, Marguerite Henry, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett...E.B. White, E. Nesbit, Cornelia Meigs. Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens. O. Henry, P.G. Wodehouse, B.M. Bower, Agatha Christie...Booth Tarkington, Kathleen Thompson Norris, Christopher Morley. Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier and Harper Lee. Oscar Hammerstein and Bob Nolan. Otto Harbach (because of this) and Stan Jones (because of this), Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Mack Gordon. Max Brand and Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Ralph Moody, David McCullough and Kendall Hailey. Margaret Junkin Preston. John Ford and Frank Capra (and whoever wrote the scripts of their films). Norman Rockwell (who knew how to tell a story as well as any writer), W. Herbert Dunton and Fred Swan. Aaron Copland, Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, Jean Sibelius, Ferde GrofĂ©, Richard Rodgers. Elmer Bernstein, Max Steiner, John Williams.

Authors, poets, lyricists, artists, composers. (Actors and musicians I omit because their inspiration is so much harder to quantify.) And there's more. Composers whose music I've heard on the radio but never caught the name—artists whose work I've seen but never known who painted it—writers of children's books I read when I was young enough not to pay attention to who wrote them. And countless others I've forgotten to name here, who may have contributed one book, one song, one short story, one film, one line of poetry that has been woven into the fabric of my mind and helped lay the groundwork for something of my own that I'll produce some day. With a list like this, there'll always be someone you leave off; it'll always be growing and always changing. At different times different names on it will seem more significant than others. Yet the point is, it's not so much the names themselves that matter as it is the whole collage they make when you put them together.

Harking back to the quote at the very beginning of this post—only six of the people I listed are alive today [now five, with the recent passing of Mary Stewart]. But as Kleon says, that absolutely doesn't matter. I've learned more from people I will never meet, people who lived and died long before I was born, than I have anywhere else. And the freedom and the endless possibilities of that are thrilling.

What does your genealogy of ideas look like?


Rachel Heffington said...

One always breathes a sigh of relief when a book one recommends has been weighed in the balance and NOT found lacking. I should do a genealogy of ideas, shouldn't I? Good show.

Taylor Bowen said...

Such an interesting post! And I LOVE how you listed Bob Nolan. Me too, girl. Me too.