November 5th, 2010

A Matter of Influence

Earlier this week, I did a short talk and Q&A with a short story class that’s studying some pieces from Once. The theme I was asked to discuss was influence–what short stories and short-story writers had I learned from, and what, and how much. Well, I extrapolated those questions from the theme given; I think I got it more or less right.

There are so many writers I tried to learn from…ok, imitate…when I was younger. Ok, and I still do. I have never ever been called out on any of this rampant imitation, and here’s why: my mimicry is not good enough to remind any of the writing that I’m supposed to be mimicking. I’m not that good–it takes talent to make your voice sound like someone else’s, a weird and specific talent that few possess.

This is why the old teenage justification–“I don’t want to read other people, because it’ll influence me and my work will be derivative”–is so hilarious. Yeah, you read too much Sylvia Plath or JD Salinger, and you are in *real* danger of sounding exactly like that genius person. That’s the problem.

I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded in sounding like much of anyone except myself. But the writers that I choose to mimic–and thus to read closely and repeatedly and with care–teach me things in small and subtle ways, and point me in directions I never good have found all on my untutored own. I am a firm believer that imitation is a perfectly excellent way to begin; the places where we first hear are own voices in our work are the places where we’ve utterly failed to sound like someone else.

The influencer I chose to talk about with the students is Leon Rooke, and the stories we took up were Leon’s A Bolt of White Cloth, probably one of my favourite stories ever (it’s a long list of faves), and a story of my own that Leon pushed me (both figurively, by inspiring me with his own work, and literally, by tapping my arm and saying, “Hey, this is what you should write!”), “Linh Lai” (sorry, it’s not online).

What’s funny is that I started the talk with the same basic material on “influence” as above, talked about and read from “Bolt,” then talked about and read from “Linh,” then asked if they could see a connection. Partly, I think the students were nervous to have a stranger teaching them (they loosened up later and the Q&A was really fun) but also, the connection is not obvious.

My writing is not very Rookian, more’s the pity. I don’t have that swing to my prose, usually, and Leon’s background and experiences take him to places I can’t go. But *I* feel the connection, and know how much I learned about quotidan magic and wet-laundry romance from Leon, not to mention how to set a scene with just a glimpse of the sky. Just because my imitation is a 99% failure, doesn’t mean that that 1% isn’t in there, beating for all it’s worth.

This is *not* to say that I take my story as a failed story (I love that one, and all my published stories, actually; modesty ought to have forbid me saying that but oh well!)–just that the imitation didn’t work. But nor should it. We already have one human who can write like Leon Rooke, and he carries the mantel admirably. I am happy to just write like me, which is of course the sum everything I’ve known and seen, and everyone I’ve learned from.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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