One of the things that interests me is how writers are influenced by other writers. I have thought about this a lot because I see other writers talk about it. I got to wondering who influenced me the most as I was growing up and learning how to write.
I had a lot of favorites growing up. I marveled at the storytelling capability of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He wasn’t a great writer, but he was a good story teller and a favorite when I was in my teens. I also liked Nabakov a lot, mainly for his command of the English language and ability to push the envelope. I went through a big Ray Bradbury phase and liked his work, and tried to imitate him when I was eleven or twelve years old, but I don’t think he had any lasting impression upon me. In fact, I must admit today his work doesn’t speak to me at all in any understandable way. Which is amazing since he was such a favorite of mine at one time.
So the last couple of days I got to wondering who had really influenced me and why. I came up with three names.
Ian Fleming. This was my first big influence. I was introduced to his novels by my dad when I was around thirteen. By that time I was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t know how to go about it. Fleming’s descriptive work had a big impact on me. I knew it was escapism, and some people said it was “only” escapism. I knew better. By then I was a much deeper reader than most people around me and I could see the themes he was working on.
Also, I was growing up at the time in an abusive household, so a writer like this who could take me away to a time and place where violence was happening but you won out in the end…that made a deep philosophical impact on my life.
I often tried to write like Fleming. I like his style and what he can do with dialog. He’s best known for his iconic characters and villains, but his mastery at language, plot, characterization, it was all meat for my table. After reading Fleming I knew for certain I wanted to be a writer. There was no longer any doubt.
I would sit under our trailer during the day, enjoying what shade I could grab, and compose entire Flemingesque novels in my head. It was a heady time for me. I had been given a glimpse of a world where I could write stories that interested me and helped people forget their travails for a time.
What kind of writer would I be? Someone who could tell a story that transported you to another time and place and make you forget the mundane shitstorm that was ordinary life.
All right, fine. But how would I go about doing that? This was the part that worried me and I saw no way around it.
Ernest Hemingway. When I was in high school I read The Old Man and the Sea. I wasn’t captivated by it, nor did I think it was the best thing I had ever read. But I was astonished by the symbolism and the careful attention to detail he brought to the work, along with an economy of words. I talked to the English teacher about it afterward and she said he did those things on purpose. That floored me. I knew then this writing thing was a lot more difficult than putting words on paper. Anyone could do that. They’re called hacks. This was going to be work if I wanted to elevate writing into what I knew it was supposed to be: an art form. Fine, I thought. I’ll do what it takes to learn the things I need to know.
From then on I devoured pretty much everything Hemingway wrote. I have read A Farewell to Arms several times. It’s by far my favorite novel of his and one I plan to read again in the not too distant future. But as I studied and read Hemingway it wasn’t his style that had so much influence on me but his philosophy about life, and about writing itself. I remember one day I found a book that collected his old letters to contemporaries. Something like that was gold to a philosophically starving writer like myself.
As I studied Hemingway I learned about his views on symbolism. Yes, symbols were in his work, but he hadn’t put them there on purpose. If he had done it on purpose they would have lost resonance and power. He wasn’t stupid. He knew they were there and necessary to the story, but he hadn’t done it on purpose.
It took me a while to understand this concept, but I think I have a grasp on it today. It only took me about thirty years to understand. It’s one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s cabinet if he knows how to use it well.
One of the things Hemingway said still resonates with me. I wish it would resonate with more writers to be quite honest. In an interview with The Paris Review Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”
I live by that. I think all good writers should live by that if they want their work to be remembered. I think it speaks to something else I have blogged about and that is writing should not be safe. The safe story is never remembered. Nor should it expect to be.
I am not comparing myself to Hemingway, of course, but I have taken on this particular philosophy as my own. I think it works well both as an artistic tool and a method to maintain your sanity in this profession.
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
To me Hemingway’s life reads and ends like a Greek tragedy in many respects. As someone who has suffered from depression I can relate to what he went through in many ways. No matter the venue I can never think of Hemingway without remembering the old Viking Death Chant:
Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother,
and my sisters and my brothers
Lo, there do I see the line of my people
back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them
in the halls of Valhalla
where the brave may live forever.
I don’t know if Hemingway had those words in his thoughts before he died. But it would not surprise me. Either way, he is a definite and chartable influence upon my growth as a writer, lasting even today.
I think Hemingway also said good writers don’t talk about their work all that much. I believe that’s a good rule, more or less. What’s more important, the story you finished yesterday, or the one you will write today?
It’s an easy decision for me, too.
Henry Miller. Now we come to the writer who, by far, had the biggest influence on me. Tropic of Cancer is without a doubt my favorite novel. I discovered Miller when I was about nineteen or twenty, I think. I remember sitting in a washateria one Saturday afternoon waiting for my clothes to finish and reading Miller. It was a bright day and the sun streamed through the plate glass window. A guy walked past and saw what I was reading. He stopped and said, “Hey, Miller, cool.”
It was like a code. People who read Miller knew what it meant. We had been given keys into the insight of the human psyche. I loved Miller’s vocabulary and tried, and failed dismally, to use copy it in my own fiction at the time. But it was all a learning process.
What fascinated me most about Miller, and does today, was his unswerving attention to the truth, no matter who it irritated. And if they found his writing obscene and the actions he described grotesque, all the better, for humans were themselves obscene and grotesque, along with being noble. All you had to do was open a history book to be reminded of that fact.
Miller believed if you weren’t pissing someone off somewhere you weren’t trying very hard with your writing. I liked his honesty, his ability to look so deep within himself * and write with passion what he saw residing there without recoiling. That took character and courage and a deep belief in your ability as a writer to successfully pull it off. It is the one concept I take from him and try to live up to. I may fail at it. But I keep trying.
Miller, by far, had the greatest influence upon me, mainly from a philosophical point of view, but also through his fearless writing and his phenomenal ability to use language to make us think, and to move us. For Miller, obscenity was always a cleansing process.
I think he, more than anyone else I ever read, helped develop my current philosophy that stories should never, never be safe. Because if they are, you not only attenuate yourself, but literature as an art form.
*Nietzsche claimed “When you look into the abyss, it looks into you.” Nietzsche had an influence upon my life, perhaps more than any philosopher. But his influence was more philosophical, not from a writing perspective. Although, unlike many philosophers, his writing is easier to grasp and understand and has an accessibility which evades his contemporaries.