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Being Derivative

Growing up, I didn’t have the most solid sense of self-esteem. I was definitely a people pleaser and a lot of my motivations were around external factors: Winning this, beating that, being the “best” at sports, or grades, or getting into the “best” school.

And even though I had lots of different hobbies, my creative efforts always felt a bit derivative1. While other folks had amassed this raw, natural talent to draw, perform, act… my skills always felt less than that. It was like I had some sort of ‘second order’ skills, approximate skills. QUASI-skills.

I loved making things, but it felt like I was borrowing other people’s skills and talents rather than my own 😖

I remember being in elementary school, writing a short story about me and my friends collecting Pokemon (or was it becoming Pokemon?). Or another time composing an “original” piece of music for an assignment where I’d really just transcribed the Pokemon theme. … Pokemon was a really popular game, ok?!

I kept doing more of that as I got older2—taking a love of a piece of media and cramming it into whatever I was making at the time. That meant making a lot of fan sites (often incomplete) for video games and anime as I learned the magic of HTML and CSS, and making pixel art of me and my friends by mashing up whatever video game sprites I could get my hands on in Photoshop3. I also got into making Anime Music Videos via a friend—something that helped me to learn about Adobe Premiere4 and video editing in general, and something that I carried into University—largely inspired by them winning a local competition5.

(Fortunately, I grew up in an age without a lot of social media, so my cringy videos for the morning announcements6 and fan-dubbing of clips from Gravitation and Steel Angel Kurumi have narrowly avoided being cast out to the world at large 😰)

But even though I was learning different skills, and doing thigns I enjoyed, it never felt like the right skills. Programming didn’t feel the same as making an impressive sketch. Videos weren’t the same as performing.

I felt like some sort of copycat (or perhaps, an impostor 😏)

But as it turns out, none of that matters! 🙃

…Or more accurately, that as I got older (and started going to therapy) I learned that all sorts of different skills are valuable, and that people have value outside of the things that they produce.7

Plus, in the current internet landscape, all those different skills that I thought were derivative are actually incredibly useful, and there are so many folks out there that are leveraging their love of different media to make their own amazing derivative works.

If you take a small snapshot of the web, you’ve got:

And there are tons of people doing this (and there are people who are fans of this kind of work). It’s so inspiring to see the kinds of things people are making today 😲

Honestly, I don’t know why it bothered me so much that I created new art out of other people’s work. That’s effectively modern remix culture, and even when I was growing up, tons of famous works were clearly made up of or influenced by other works (though, in a different way).

Or put differently, there’s nothing wrong with being derivative.

People learn skills by trying to reproduce works they love! Everyone has different skills that can be shown off in so many different ways, to share their love of what they love!

…And I don’t know why it took me this long to understand that 😳

  1. Untangling the mess of thoughts and feelings around self-esteem can definitely be solved by… Therapy. It’s a work in progress 😅
  2. …Not Pokemon. After Gen 2 I wasn’t back in the game until Gen 6.
  3. Though I never played the game, I loved the sprites from SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash. I used a lot of sprites from that, as well as Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen.
  4. Let’s be honest: it wasn’t Adobe Premiere, it was Windows Movie Maker 🙃
  5. I say “inspired by” loosely. Envious is a better word; I entered the same competition for I think the larger part of a decade, and though I received an honourable mention a few different times, I never won 😬
  6. We’re talking green screen with a bed sheet, background half-blurred into the subject, bad photoshop and terrible Scottish / English / Japanese accents 🙅‍♂️
  7. This is not particularly revelatory, but it took a lot for me to get here.