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I was trying to find the secret formula of Art when I discovered successful writers share a simple and basic trait: they all have a clear idea of who their masters are.
If asked who majorly influenced their work, the answer will be precise and rich in details.
Well, the good news is that I also discovered a practical technique to get there — at their level.
It’s called “The Writer’s Tree”.
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The Writer’s Tree
Like the family genealogy, with all the ancestors — generation after generation — you also possess a genealogy of ideas. Everything encountered in the past participate in different proportions at it: some events faded away while others, even if potentially irrelevant, still influence you today.
What’s sure is we all can choose most of the experiences and knowledge we want to come across with, which means that we can literally build our own genealogy of ideas over time.
And here is the trick: instead of focusing on ideas, we should direct our attention to people.
“I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”
— Marcel Duchamp
The Writer’s Tree is nothing more than an intentional map of those people that underlies our philosophy, style, poetic — whatever you want to call it.
Who are the people that influenced you the most? Answer this question, and you’ll start seeing a new level of awareness.
How To Structure And Grow Your Tree
People: thinkers, writers, artists, philosophers, your parents or friend, musicians, film directors — catch’em all!
Start from the consideration that your ideas are not exactly yours. Most likely, they are a mixture of others’ ideas that you digested, collected and reinterpreted with your personal language. Those who influenced you the most, those you stole many ideas from, are your masters.
Also, if you’re not satisfied with who’s in your tree right now, you can always decide on new masters to pick next, you can evolve. Unlike family (can’t choose your parents!), you can determine who you want your masters to be — that’s basically what you do every time you select a book or a movie.
Process To Grow Your Writer’s Tree:
In the research of what you like, want to write about, want to become, trying to devour all the existing literature — even if on a specific subject — can make you choke.
Instead, chewing on one thinker at a time is more achievable and satisfying. The best way to choose these masters is by following what you like, picking who you’re most likely to love.
When you find someone, study everything there is to know about them. Become an expert.
This approach provides you with both security and vision. It’s like having many mentors.
The main thinkers — those you love the most — will form the trunk of the tree; they are your masters.
The thinkers who influenced your masters, they are the branches; study them to broaden your vision on your masters’ ideas and principles.
Grow this tree slowly, reading and consuming what you love. When the tree grows big enough, it will give fruits to reap: structured and meaningful thoughts that will make your writings stand out.
Here’s what my Writer’s Tree looks like (here simplified for obvious design reasons):
Masters like Borges, Hemingway, Nolan form the trunk. On the branches lay the masters’ masters, those who help deepen my research.
There are literally thousands of authors I could read. Too many, actually. And this is why I’ll focus on those few that help me grow the tree — those who give me solidity when I need a guide!
“Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff.”
— Austin Kleon
You cannot inspire yourself: look for inspiration outside; look for masters’ help.
[Extra though: It goes without saying that if your masters are still alive, you should definitely try to get in touch with’em.]
How Not To Do It
An obstacle you may encounter while looking for stuff to read (or generally “consume”) is to listen to what experts, blogs, magazines suggest. The risk is to end up buying “must-read books” and approaching topics and stories you don’t necessarily like.
Do not passively adopt reading lists from others. It’s a loss of time, most of the times.
“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love”.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
You should seek out what you love. Build your own genealogy, a process full of experiments and mistakes - sure! - but which guarantees a great final value in return.
There’s so much out there, and our time is limited, that we need to choose wisely.
Trust your masters and follow what they read. Trust the people who populate your Writer Tree and this tool will become extremely helpful for inspiration and decision-making. It was a game-changer for me, honestly.
“The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.”
— Austin Kleon
Last Practical Hints
Watch David Perell’s video on how to get wonky: a word used to describe someone with an obsessive interest in the nitty-gritty details of a particular subject. Wonky people are willing to explore niches so deeply that they become experts on details other people won’t even bother with.
Running out of ideas? Try GNOD Literature Map (love this!) to discover new writers you may like (for art and music too).
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”
— T. S. Eliot
See you next Wednesday,