What does it take to be truly original? When you think about your favorite artists, musicians, writers—or any other creative type—do you ever ask yourself, “How do they do it?”
Would you be surprised to know the answer is they just ripped off their own favorite artists? Would you be more surprised if I said that you could do the same and still create something original?
What about the risk in copying someone else’s work? It doesn’t feel good to pass off someone else’s work as your own, and society looks down on it. The worst part is, you can’t hide it. If you copy something popular, everyone will know you copied it.
But the truth remains: To find your unique style and create something original, you have to start by copying a lot of great work.
A few years ago, I ran into an interview with Phil Anselmo—frontman for Pantera and now Down—at Loyola University that changed the way I think about originality and the creative process.
I don’t remember how I came across this video, because I’m not a fan of his music and the hour-long interview was—for the most part—about drug abuse. But towards the end, he takes a question from the audience about what he thinks of the heavy metal scene today.
In true Grumpy Old Man fashion, he explains that it sucks. But then he takes just a moment to explain why he thinks that, and his words struck a chord with me.
Here’s the interview. The moment Phil begins answering the question is at 50:50. It’s short. Pay attention or you’ll miss it:
The 10 Bands Theory of Originality
How did I pick up on that single minute of the interview in the midst of 58 others? I’m not sure, but I’m glad I did.
What Phil described briefly in his answer to the student in the audience is what I now call the “10 Bands Theory of Originality.”
The premise is something like this:
Where does original art come from? It comes from an inspired artist. But inspiration, by definition, is not original—it’s provided by something else. So, to create something truly unique, an artist must draw inspiration from at least 10 different sources simultaneously.
When I first watched that interview with Phil, his words really rang true. It was before I’d started writing professionally, and was seriously considering trying to make it as a musician (thank the gods I didn’t go that route).
It rang true because I was committing the very sin that Phil pointed out. “Back in the day” as he would say, bands would rip off their own favorite bands just the same as bands do today (and have forever).
The difference—and the problem—is that the pool of favorite bands has become progressively smaller.
If you rip off each of your favorite 10 bands, you’re bound to get something original. It’s pretty hard to put 10 different things together in a blender and come out with something generic.
But if you only ever copy your favorite two bands, you’ll never give yourself the opportunity to get far enough away from the original source to create anything unique. There simply aren’t enough possible permutations to explore. Your songs end up sounding derivative.
The 10 Bands Theory hardly applies to just bands. In any creative work, it should be the goal of the creator to mimic as many sources of inspiration as possible. In doing so, she’ll venture far enough away from each and allow the different sources she mimics to mesh and overlap in new and original ways.
Danger: Watch Out For This Misinterpretation of The 10 Bands Theory
The one major problem with The 10 Bands Theory of Originality is that it often gets misinterpreted, leading to serious copycat-itis and lackluster results.
A young, inexperienced artist may have 10 different sources of inspiration that he draws from, but when he creates, he chooses only to mimic one or two of them at a time. Then, for the next piece, he might move on to a few others.
He thinks he’s drawing from many sources—and in a way, he is—but the problem is that he’s not drawing from enough of them for each piece. Instead of creating something truly unique, he creates a series of knock-offs, each different from the others. He creates a disjointed body of work that looks strange and is hard to follow.
Why is this so common? Because actually putting the 10 Bands Theory to work is hard. It’s incredibly hard.
How do you take 10 different masterpieces and mold them all together into one piece of work that makes any sense?
The process can sometimes feel like torture, but it’s mandatory. It’s something that takes more than repetition. It takes deliberate practice.
For the last three years, I’ve worked to find my voice as a writer. I started out by falling into the same trap I just explained. I would copy one of my favorite writers. Then another. And another.
It kind of worked, but it left me feeling like a bit of a fraud. Like I wasn’t saying anything unique. But, eventually, what it did do was give me the confidence to expand and keep trying. I’d start to add the voice and tone of more authors as I wrote my mimicked pieces.
Some would say, “Why worry how they would write it? Why not just write like you?”
My answer is, “That is me.”
Who am I but a collection of many different inspirations? Who is anyone but a compilation of what they know and understand?
Today, it’s hardly something I think about. I can sit down and write, and the words—minus days when the writing is so bad I consider applying for jobs at McDonald’s—come out the way I’d like them to. And it sounds like me, not someone else.
But that didn’t come without a lot of careful, deliberate practice. It didn’t come without hard work. Finding me meant cringing over and over as I mimicked my inspirations and looked at my work knowing that what I’d just created was not me, and it was not original.
If I hadn’t taken the risk of looking like a fool as I found my way, I’d never have made it this far—however far “this far” is.
If you want to create something truly unique, The 10 Bands Theory will get you there. But not without a lot of hard work and deliberate practice.
Thanks for the lesson, Phil.
Yours in risk taking,
Founder, Advanced Riskology