Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Am My Influences

I am currently reading Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I am also currently rewriting my own novel, possibly to be titled The Stars Are Fire. Last night Mighty Reader asked me what I thought about McCann's book. My answer was, more or less, that I thought it was fantastic writing but I didn't know if I was enjoying it much. There ensued a short conversation about LTGWS and what, if anything, I expect from a novel. This conversation eventually turned to what I expect of my own novels (because I am never more than six sentences away from talking about myself), and I have made some observations. About me, of course.

The first books I can remember reading were fairy tales, Dr. Seuss and then adventure stories. Books heavy on danger and linguistic play. The books I write now are heavy on danger and linguistic play. Huh. Later I read Shakespeare, books heavy on (even the comedies) the dark side of humanity and full of linguistic play. The books I write now are (even in the comic moments) heavy on the dark side of humanity and full of linguistic play.

When I was a young man, I read a lot of books that examined the existential problem (that is, attempting to find meaning in the fact of being human and delineating the social and spiritual contracts) and I thought that when I grew up and became a writer, I would pen introspective novels set in modern day that examined the existential problem, books that would be beautiful and quiet, revealing and heart-rending. Not quite books like Let The Great World Spin (which is not a book I wish I'd written, though it's got passages I wish were mine), but possibly books like...well, that's where I run into trouble. I'm not sure who is writing books I wish I'd written. I can't think of a book--even one I admire greatly--that I wouldn't change if I had the power.

Anyway, so there I am thinking I'd either be on the cutting edge of experimental prose (like, say, William Burroughs during his Cities of the Red Night stage or Italo Calvino writing If On a Winter's Night a Traveler), or I'd be writing solidly humanistic fiction like Dostoyevski or Chekhov or Prose or Hemingway. Instead I am writing big tragedies in the manner of Shakespeare that are filtered through the fairy tales and adventure stories (Doc Savage! John Carter, Warlord of Mars! Lucky Starr and the Pirates of Venus! Et cetera!) of my youth. In short, my writing and reading are both apparently strongly informed by my earliest reading habits.

I make no judgements about this (aside from the inescapable feeling that no matter what I write or how I write it, I could have done a better job and I'll never really be pleased with or impressed by my own work); I merely note it. I write the stories that come to me, that I am able to write. I work on the books until they seem right to me, and I read books that seem right for me, and neither the books I read nor the books I write seem to be the books I thought I'd be living with. Which confuses me a bit, and confusion annoys me, so I'm annoyed.

So am I going anywhere with this rambling confessional? Don't know. Possibly there's a buried theme about trying, through my writing, to reconcile my juvenile influences with my abstract concept of literature and either failing or not but being unable to tell the difference (because there is no success or failure in that attempt, which is predicated on a foolish and undefined standard). Or, you know, I've been getting too little sleep of late and everything seems a bit funhouse mirror, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, thoughts on this? Are we essentially writing versions of the books we first read? Can we move far from our "formative years?" Should we? Should we not?


  1. I think those formative years as readers are what color our perception of the world. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction growing up, so that's the way my brain became wired. Does that mean because I read a lot of fantasy I shouldn't write fantasy? No, it means I should play to my strengths as a writer.

    I'm not saying you can't stretch yourself, or find new avenues for growth, but there's something to be said for becoming so adroit at one type of story that you write it well. That's the key here. Write it well, or as well as you feel you can make it, and go from there.

  2. Great questions, Scott. I look back on what I read as a child, and what I read in college, and it seems like I'm building a conglomerate of that. I loved fairy tales and action thrillers, and then I discovered literary works and fell in love with them. Then I got the idea that I wanted to mix the two and now I'm just experimenting and having fun and figuring out what works for me. I don't really know what I write yet.

    I think there's something to be said about writing what we write well, but then trying to write what we want to write well. Even if we fail, we will most definitely learn something. As long as you enjoy what you're writing, that's what's important. Like you, I usually end up unhappy with my work, but lately I've been pleased with a lot of things I've accomplished, and that's a great feeling. I keep hoping it lasts.

  3. Matthew: Thanks for the retweet! It's a great way to spread the word and I hope people keep getting our posts our there so we can grow our readership and dominate the world.

  4. "I write the stories that come to me, that I am able to write. I work on the books until they seem right to me, and I read books that seem right for me, and neither the books I read nor the books I write seem to be the books I thought I'd be living with. "

    I'm stealing your own words Mr. Bailey as I could not have said them better myself. Thank you.

  5. Great questions... In some ways, this is the Catch-22 in that 'to be a good writer one must be a good reader' phrase (or some such variant)... which is why, nowadays, I tend to listen to/read books from a smattering of genres, even if they're not my writing/reading pref of choice... allows me to keep my ear tuned a bit, but hopefully not overinfluence my style.

    That being said, I do believe one shouldn't steer clear of their influences, particularly if one's influences/tendencies trend toward the more philosophical/existential (mine were usually much lighter).

    PS - digging the new look of the blog.

  6. ...Don't stress too much. Most been-at-it-a-long-time writers I've come across--they all report writing becomes harder the more they write, they feel more confused, they like their work less. I'm in this category. I notice more things now that I didn't years ago, things that don't please me, things I constantly yank out my hair over. By now I've gone bald ten times.

    As long as you're writing what you want to write, you're doing well. Just try to stay focused on producing the actual texts; keep all the other stuff existing around (or behind) it secondary.

  7. First, an aside: I really like your new title (The Stars Are Fire). It's a keeper.

    Influences...I read a lot of classic mysteries as a kid (Doyle, Christie, Ellery Queen) and a lot of SF (more hard SF than fantasy). I did read tons of classic lit in college and enjoyed it, but when it came to writing, I wanted to create more of what I *most* wanted to read -- mysteries and fantasy (not sure when SF turned to fantasy in my reading).

    It's very simple -- I love these two genres, there are books I wished existed in them but don't, so I wrote them myself. Never felt drawn to anything else.

  8. Write what wants to be written. Don't worry about defining it. it doesn't have to be anything but what it is.

  9. You are having an internal (before this post hehe) debate every writer needs to have.

    You have also of course come to the right conclusion. When your conscious subconscious minds battle over which stories to write, your subconscious mind should win (most likely will win if you're to have some form of peace).

    We cannot escape ourselves as writers. The only question that remains is if we can change what has become a part of us.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Scott, I must thank you, because I've been wanting to discuss this idea for some time and never really quite new how to approach it. For me, some enlightenment arrived when I figured out that Tolstoy and Proust and Woolf, three writers that I love were all heavily influenced by each other (depending on who came after whom). It suddenly made sense why I would love all three writers so greatly and not, say, Hemingway, who admire but have no desire to like at all. I think there are different schools of thought on what writing should be, and perhaps we tend to place ourselves in the center of the school of thought that suits us best. You, for instance, love to play with language. That's fits with Shakespeare. I tend to want language to get out of the way, which fits more with Tolstoy. Neither way is right or wrong, but they are different views of what writing should be.

    For me, I didn't fall deeply in love with writing until one year in college where I read a John Updike book and a Yasunari Kawabata book at the same time. Both were disturbing and dealt with taboo sexual desires, and for the first time I understood that writing could be intimate and dark. That motivated me to try my own hand at it, and I think I tend to still explore these same themes.

    We fall in love with something, and it's hard to fall out of love even though there are plenty of other possibilities out there.

  11. MattDel: I read a lot of SF as a kid, but nowadays I can't stand reading it for the most part and haven't looked at it for decades. So to write it would not be playing to my strengths. YMMV. Also, as a writer, I do want to "stretch" myself; I want to create and solve more difficult writerly problems with each book. I want to dazzle myself with the stories, characters and prose I create.

    Michelle: Yes, I get the conglomerate. It just surprises me sometimes which bits of which styles are playing which roles in my current work. And there's the old question of "would I, as a reader, want to read what I'm writing?" Since my own taste baffles me often, I can't answer that question.

    Anne: I can sum up my bafflement in an elegant way, but I'm still baffled. Darn it.

    Bane o' Anubis: I agree that to deliberately turn your back on your influences merely to have done is foolish (and not a bit childish, if you ask me). I am simply surprised at what my real, deep influences are turning out to be.

    FP: You make me laugh. Stress is my normal state. As my equally-stressed friend Byron says, "Stress is your body's way of letting you know you're alive." Anyway, I write what I can, as best as I can. I don't really understand "what you want to write." It doesn't work that way for me.

    Alex: I'm going to start reading Christie, because I have an idea for a detective story. Thanks for liking the new title. We'll see if my agent feels the same way!

    Taryn: I like "what wants to be written." I understand that.

    Mayowa: Interesting point about escaping ourselves. I wonder how much of my desire to write fiction is a desire to escape myself. I wonder how that works in other writers' lives?

    Davin: That's beautifully put. But sometimes, you know, we do fall out of love. Sometimes we look at who/what we loved and we have no idea what we could've been thinking to get involved.

    On the other hand, I seem to be listening of late to a lot of the same music I listened to when I was 18-23. For those of you who are a lot younger than me (I'm about 48), we call that "nostalgia." But I do adore the music of my youth in a way I'll never love any music that comes out/has come out since. It's like we can acquire layers of sophistication but beneath that sophistication is forever going to be whatever we used to be. For better or worse. I'm not trying to rid myself of my escapist fiction roots; I'm merely trying to understand them better.

  12. Scott, I have never been able to answer that question, and I'm afraid I never will.

  13. I was steeped in literary classics from the time I could read to the time I could start picking out my own books. At 12 yrs old my favorites were Shakespeare, Jack London, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "Gone with the Wind" was considered a luxury read one weekend.

    I read widely in all genres in high school and college...but I've found my taste for literary works has diminished somewhat, and I find myself turning more toward mainstream fiction as I don't feel "obligated" to find any deeper meaning in it. Hence my love of romance and action - which is what I blend in my own writing now.

    I contemplated philosophy and the human condition for many, many years - my brain got burnt out. I've no desire to explore such subjects in my writing on any deep level at this point.

    (I do have some literary stories to tell...but it's not their time yet, nor my time to write them. They'll keep.)

  14. Scott, I do agree that sometimes we fall out of love. I think that's when you might have a dramatic change in your writing. Picasso's cubist movement comes to mind. I think sometimes those major breakthroughs happen.

  15. ...I meant that writing what you don't want to write--that might be a problem. If the works you're producing now are the ones you want to produce now as an adult who's been at this for years, not what you years-ago thought you'd be producing--if most times you start out thinking "this is what I want to write" and then you wind up writing that, if your overall intention matches your overall execution most times, I think you're in a good place, I think you're where you should be after many years of writing.

    But if you mean that before you write anything down, you have no intentions, no desires, then how do you outline first?

  16. I am going to agree with Davin here...I think it is what we love to read that informs who we become as writers. Maybe as kids we read a bunch of stuff that we don't even remember (I'll wager that we did...or maybe it was read to us by teachers...) but the stuff we DO remember, for some reason or another, resonated within our young souls....that is the stuff that shapes our writing.

    At least that's what I think.

    Great and thoughtful post.


  17. I'm not writing much that's like what I first read, because I first read fantasy and sci-fi in ungodly amounts. I don't write that now, and actually feel a bit disconnected from those genres. Literary is what appeals to me now, and though I've ideas for genre novels, I'll likely give them a literary tone, since that seems to be what I do.

    Your mileage, apparently, varies. 'Tis as it should be.


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