“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
One of the quickest ways to develop more original work is to stop stealing from people who are alive and start stealing from the dead.
My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art. If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium.
The musician M. Ward once talked about how he doesn’t steal from his peers as much as he steals from their record collections. “I am very influenced by the people who influenced my influences, and I am influenced even more by the people who influenced them.”
A really great artist often needs the attitude of a scholar. She needs to be willing to dig into the past and go deep.
“Don’t live in the present,” was Rebecca Solnit’s recent advice to writers.
Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me. Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking…
In other words: steal old stuff.