How To Build An Inspirational Family Tree

This week’s guest poster is the lovely writer Gabrielle Zurlo, who discusses building an inspirational Family Tree.  Enjoy!


“Discover what makes you uniquely you.”

You can’t move very far today without a sentiment similar to’s trying to usher you down a promising path of self-discovery, and therefore, enlightenment.

Knowing your highly specific roots is all the craze now, and as the daughter of a genealogist, I say, rightly so.  Actually, as an artist (and a nosy one at that) I’ve become something of a family tree evangelist.

Here’s why:

Whether in the middle of a creative endeavor or before you’ve even stepped out of the gate, we’ve all been accosted by the Pit of Desperation.

The Pit is a dark, dank place made of your sharpest thoughts of failure, confusion, and fear.  From the bottom, there are only two places you can go: back up or the Dead End.

Nothing good comes from the stale, frozen Dead End.  Nothing comes from it at all, no art, no book, no poem, no anything. So how do you climb out of an impossible dark, sharp, scary pit?  You climb.

The tools you use to brave the slopes varies, but as the Pit and I are old pals, here’s something that has never failed to get me out.  (Sometimes, it’s even prevented me from falling all the way to the bottom.)  When I get caught in by the Pit of Desperation I go back to my highly specific roots and climb my creative family tree.

If you know me or follow me on any social media I apologize for this next portion and you can begin your eye-rolling now.  I would not be who I am, where I am, without Neil Gaiman.

His work is in the very fabric of me as a storyteller, artist, and human.  When I try to think about the alternate-universe me that didn’t spot Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on YA author Holly Black’s acknowledgements page, all I can come up with is a boring sadness.

Being curious long enough to look up one of my favorite author’s influences 13 years ago, has literally shaped me.  Neil Gaiman’s works have gotten me through the hardest times of my life and have gone on to provide me with a diverse, incredible lineage.

When I get scared, I read Neil.  When I get stuck I read, watch, listen to one of the countless authors, filmmakers, musicians, philosophers I’ve discovered from Neil and many more.

It takes time to curate the list of inspiration into a family tree that works for you.  What spoke to your favorite author from their favorite book might not be the same spark that affects you.  It might not resonate with you at all and that’s okay too.  Just move on to the next influence and then their influence and theirs and so-on.

Be actively curious about artists that speak to you.  Search out their blogs, websites, see who they follow on instagram, create your own connections when reading and pay attention to similarities in other artists’/authors’ work.

Finding your creative lineage as a writer (and reader!) is an imperative exercise not just for getting unstuck, but for growing beyond your own limits.  A part of creating your creative family tree is figuring out what resonates with you as a storyteller or artist.

Is it relate-able situations in webcomics?  Stories about intelligent outsiders?  Swords? Complicated romance?  Distil what you love from a particular influence down to its essence to figure out the connective tissues. This serves three purposes:

01 – As a writer, you have to read and read widely.  I don’t know about you, but venturing into unfamiliar parts of the library and bookstore terrifies me.  Where am I supposed to start?

Reading a book is a lot of commitment.  I know what I like and what if I waste my time on a book that I don’t like or understand?  If you start by reading from your Work In Progress Family Tree list you’re swimming in the deep but with a life vest keeping you afloat.

You’ll find wildly different stories by authors who share some hidden influence. Even echoes across different genres or formats can help branching out not feel quite so daunting.

02 – Deconstructing what resonates with you and what doesn’t is creative gardening.  Discovering what draws you in and sticks with you in characters and stories is the same thing as storing up for lean times.  Go back to your stores to straighten out unruly plots, wishy-washy characters, and blank pages.

03 – Close examinations of your creative lineage teaches important lessons on how to write the kind of story you want to write.

I have a penchant for emotionally detached outsiders and magic, so I’ve read enough Dianna Wynne Jones, Gail Carson Levine, and Charles Dickens until I’ve begun to figure out how to write my own: three different authors, with three different styles of looking at a similar problem helping me figure out my own way of looking at the same problem.

Reading and exploring widely not only prepares you for whatever kind of story you could want to write, but it also allows for originality. All of those influences muddle together until the beautiful monster of your own style emerges.

~ ~ ~

Creativity really is a tree.  The root of what speaks to you as a person and storyteller can give you the boost you need to climb out of whatever hole opens up beneath you on the long road of creating.

You already have everything you need to make it out of the Pit and you don’t have to do it alone.  Your family is always there for you, giving you a sturdy step up and out along your way.  So, get started, find your family, create your tree.

Austin Kleon speaks about creative family trees at length in his book Steal Like An Artist and on his blog.  Click through his links, they’ll lead you through a wonderland of obscure inspiration.

Neil Gaiman has an entire book on books he loves called The View from the Cheap Seats and filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro’s twitter feed is dedicated to listing films and books that have inspired him.  As a voracious and wide reader, Guillermo’s list is incredible. His reading list has been collected on Storify.

About Gabrielle


I’m a ballet dancer turned filmmaker turned writer, so I’ve been telling stories in one form or another since I was old enough to talk.

When I’m not holed away writing in my office alongside my bunny, Remus, I work in Shakespeare studies and illustrate travel journals.

Having grown up in the woods of the southeastern US, I can’t sit still for too long so a lot of my time is spent adventuring with my photographer boyfriend and running around barefooted with my four dogs.

My current works-in-progress include a graphic novel and a multimedia Shakespeare project.

An Upstart Crow Blog   |   Gabrielle Zurlo

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Big thanks to Gabrielle for her article, I hope you all found it as enjoyable as I.  Do check out her links and if you have any comments/questions for Gabrielle please leave them below.

I’ll be back on Friday 🙂

Happy writing


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One thought on “How To Build An Inspirational Family Tree

  1. Pingback: Quick Announcement! – An Upstart Crow

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