by Christina Lay
Today’s post is dedicated to a gentleman I met at a writing conference who proudly told me that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want his voice to be influenced by other writers.
I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
If you are alive and moving through society, you are influenced by writers, whether you read or not. You’re influenced by the stories you heard as a child, by the television and movies you’ve watched, by songs on the radio, speeches you’ve listened to, graffiti glimpsed through a train window, poetry carved on tombstones and conversations overheard. Voices are everywhere. They creep into our mental milieu and join the babble, for good or ill. You can’t stop it. To try is just silly. Nor should you want to. It’s a little bit like a visual artist deciding to walk around with their eyes closed because they don’t want their vision to be influenced by what they see. While you might be intent on being a total original, shutting out the world, especially the art form in which you seek to express yourself, is a way to grow stifled and dull, not fresh and exciting.
I was thinking about this because I recently found myself strongly influenced by the voice of a writer I was reading. Before you get the wrong idea, no, this was not a case of stunningly artistic and meaningful prose that shook me to my core and made resolve to write nothing but lofty and truthy literature from this point forward. No, the book in question was a snarky fantasy involving a hornless gay unicorn and a sexually aggressive dragon (The Lightning Struck Heart by TJ Klune). It influenced me because it made me laugh and yes, I did suddenly find my characters wanting to be so much more witty and unrestrained. I paused and wondered if I was guilty of copying the writer I’d enjoyed. He certainly influenced the tone of what I was doing, but I think the main effect was more akin to a barrier broken, a buried voice uncovered, a repressed impulse given permission to unfold.
I remember when I first read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. I thought I’d been handed the key out of writer hell. At last I discovered that yes, you can be both silly and good. You can let your inner crazy out and people like it. You don’t have to be serious, emulate Hemingway (when you’re trying to conform to the accepted ideal, it’s emulate, not copy, btw), squash playfulness and grimly grind out perfectly diagrammed, perfectly original sentences in order to be a respectable Author with a capital A.
So after reading this writer, characters started gabbing away in my head, saying whatever came to mind, and instead of deciding that it was all too silly and shall we say, risky, I hurried to my desk and wrote down whatever they had to say. I didn’t censor them, much. I found a character who seemed like a long lost friend and two weeks later, I have an 18K novella out of it.
In this case, I believe what I found in another writer was a deeply felt need to play at the keyboard again. Odds are, you don’t know what you need, so filtering out possible influences is simply self-defeating. This doesn’t apply to writing only, but to any place where people are expressing themselves. It might be a song or an essay, or it might be, God help us, a Facebook status update. Because that’s where a lot of people without any other platform are expressing themselves. Don’t hide from it. Even the words and opinions we don’t like are informative, maybe especially so.
Other voices inspire us. They inform us. They show us what we didn’t know was possible, or remind us about what we’ve forgotten. The more “other” the better, in my opinion. The purpose of writing is communication, but communication is a two-way street. How can we hope to reach an audience, any audience, if we’re not willing to listen?