In Austin Kleon’s bestseller book, Steal Like an Artist, he suggests that those artists who have influenced you most are, in effect, your artistic family tree. He encourages the reader to climb this family tree by beginning with a particular master, studying him or her thoroughly, then going back from that master to study what he or she drew inspiration from. Here I’m going to speak about writers who have influenced me since I decided I wanted to write. As for climbing back, I’m still climbing.
First of all, a qualification. Even though I haven’t read all the “classics,” I have inhaled them. Their mere presence intoxicates and inspires me. Whether my own works will be read hundreds of years from now is ultimately beside the point. The important thing is that I aspire to the sublime and do not compromise. The writers below have influenced my approach to writing in some way thus far. This list is not definitive, as I’m ever open to new influences as I continue to read and learn.
At BYU, when Douglas Thayer was wisely advising me to just be myself while writing, I was mimicking James Joyce in the pieces I turned in to him. (They were horrible. When I read what I wrote back then, I shudder.) I had the notion, even then, that it’s not as much what you say as how you say it that matters. From my reading of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and what I read of Ulysses, I could see that Joyce valued how words were strung together to form sentences. A couple of my favorite Joycean phrases from back then are “Agenbite of Inwit” and the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” I tried such words in my fiction, words it was obvious I used a thesaurus to find. Professor Thayer called me on it, saying that your vocabulary should be something that you accumulate naturally, assimilating new words from the context of what you’re reading and hearing. I eventually moved on past Joyce, but besides an appreciation for diction, what he taught me was that you can make art of semi-autobiographical material.
I don’t remember exactly when, but sometime before I graduated from BYU, I learned of a writer whom I obsessed over for several years and tried hard to imitate: Thomas Pynchon. (Let’s leave aside the question of what a good little Mormon was reading him for in the first place.) I read V., The Crying of Lot 49, and yes, even Gravity’s Rainbow. Despite some of the material, I was enthralled. Here was a writer who showed that just about anything was possible in fiction. A novel was no longer a series of causally related events, or it didn’t have to be. Also, he was having fun. He named his characters funny names, just like Shakespeare did. His narrative was interrupted by song lyrics. It could also strain reality, as when Tyrone Slothrop in GR goes down into a toilet after his harmonica and finds himself in some kind of dreamworld. And the obscure cultural references were non-stop. Besides all this, Pynchon taught me about centering your fiction around some unifying idea. I took him up on it in my short story “Cocked” by having the idea of a rooster melded with the Hmong qeej (mouth organ) be the central idea holding the story together.
I could write in detail about each of my influences, but a blog post is supposed to be relatively brief, right? So here are some other writers whose works made me want to write, and a brief note about each.
Fyodor Dostoevsky: He’s inimitable, but everything he writes about, I like. Especially his explorations of existentialism, faith, and doubt.
Jane Austen: I was late to the party reading anything by her. I corrected that and found that I had missed a lot neglecting her. Her economy is incredible.
William Gaddis: He’s also inimitable, but what he taught me was that art of whatever kind was to be something that is priceless, valued for its being able to stand on its own terms and to outlast the test of time.
Cormac McCarthy: He taught me economy and that there is poetry in simple diction.
Levi S. Peterson’s The Backslider: Holy cow! I didn’t know that Mormon fiction could read like that. The Cowboy Jesus changed my life.
Douglas H. Thayer: My BYU creative writing professor has taught me much over the years, much of which I’m still learning after wandering in Postmodern land. His diction is simple and straightforward, but in his best work, those declarative sentences pile up like bricks and become a wall that you, as reader, hit with full force. Stories like “Wolves” and “Opening Day” left me in tears. His work is a great example of the Realism period of Mormon fiction.
Finally, William H. Gass: His essays about fiction have influenced me more than his actual fictional works, but like Joyce, Gass values how sentences are put together and insists that a work must have its own rules to be judged by. What I admire most about him is his conviction that a writer must be uncompromising in his standards of excellence.
In the end, though, like Austin Kleon points out, you must take what those who have come before have given you, make that your own by adding your own take on it, and then share your creations with the world. Nothing is original, so go “steal like an artist.”
Read, Write, Execute!
Photo credit: Michael Andrew Ellis