An argument with myself about the stuff in my head…

3 08 2013

I’ve been having a right barney with myself about the difference between being influenced and being inspired.

influence: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something…

Someone asked me recently on Twitter who influenced my writing. I replied with a list of my favourite authors, then later thought, ‘No, wait…’

I’ve been mulling over this off and on for a few days now. Just because I like a certain author, does that mean they’ve influenced me? Have they in some way had an effect on the way I write? Shaped my thought process when I’m writing? Do I write because I’ve read them?

My answer – I think, now, after all that mulling – is:

No.

At least, I don’t think so.

They may have inspired me to write, or to want to write, but I don’t think they’ve influenced how I write. Or why I write. And hang on, does the who even need to be a writer?

How about this…

inspire: to fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative…

Now that makes more sense.

I write because there’s stuff in my head that needs to come out. There’s always been stuff in my head, and I’ve always written it down to get it out, even when I was a little wee thing and was only beginning to master the black art of Putting Letters Together To Make Words. I just hadn’t always thought that the stuff was worth sharing with anyone. How it comes out – how it ends up sounding when it’s read – is my voice. Is my voice a copy of a favourite author? Or an amalgamation of lots of favourite authors?

I don’t think so. I hope not.

I suppose you could say that my writing is as much influenced by, say, John Irving, as it is by the two old ladies gossiping at the bus stop. Or the conversation between a child and his father on a train. Or the way a cat jumps in through a window. Or how the rain falls. Or because of that story on the news. Or the song I heard on the radio. Or the weird dream I had the other night. Or remembering what it felt like to run through the stubble in a newly harvested field on a hot day as a child. Or the zillion things I might not have consciously noticed I was noticing, but they slipped cheekily in to my subconcious anyway…

I’m reminded of a conversation between two authors at The Lowdham Book Festival recently about how long it takes to get into reading a novel – how long it takes before you decide it’s any good, and whether you’ll carry on reading it or give up. About 50 pages seemed to be the general opinion.

I can’t give up. Even if a book or story is really bad, I have to finish it. I can’t tell you why – though maybe it’s a need to know what happens next, no matter how badly written it is, or how poor the story line or plot is. I don’t see it as a waste of time to read something you’re not enjoying. Actually, I’ve just had a thought – maybe that has something to do with being force fed those classics at school; being fed little chunks, skipping about from chapter to chapter in the wrong order, analysing the characters and dissecting the plot before we even knew the story… and hating the process and hating the books and hating the authors and hating the teacher for making me hate the books, because I loved books and loved reading. I remember once getting told off by an English Literature teacher because I read a new book we were given from cover to cover before we started studying it. WHY?! Years later I read those same hated school books and plays for pleasure – and discovered their greatness. Perhaps that has something to do with why I now have to finish reading everything I pick up… just in case there’s some greatness I might miss if I don’t finish it?

Which brings me back to the word influence. (Or does it? How?! Oh well, I’m going back to it anyway.) Other writers may have influenced my behaviour sometimes by making me want to drop everything and get on with my writing. But it doesn’t have to be a good writer, a writer I admire and whose work I love, that influences my behaviour in that way. It could be that I’ve just read something I thought was crap, or that I didn’t fully understand. Or on the other hand, it could be something that I thought was truly wonderful, that blew my mind, knocked me sideways with its brilliance and left me glowing and breathless. Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ just did that to me – but it didn’t make me think ‘Ooooh, I want to write just like Neil!’ or ‘I’ll never be that good a writer so I might as well give up.’ It made me happy to read it. It made me feel good. It made me feel like a child again – and that feeling is I think perhaps key to some writers. The feeling that you’ve never quite grown up properly; the feeling that in your head you’re still running around going ‘Wow!’ and ‘Why?’ at everything – from the mundane to the bizarre, the joyous to the saddest or most painful. You see a leaf blow across the pavement, and you want to chase it. You wonder where it came from, how long it’s been travelling. Did it leave its home by choice, or was it blown away by the worst ever storm ever? Or is it just popping out to visit friends? Maybe it’s going on an adventure? If it could speak, what would it sound like? Does it have friends? Are they leaves too? Maybe its best friend is a conker?

Now I want to write a little story about a leaf and a conker. Did I influence or inspire myself? Where did those thoughts come from?! Who put them in my head? Was it you? Does that story already exist? Am I just remembering something I read?

My conclusion is that a writer is influenced by a big tangled messy conglomoration in their head of everything they have seen, heard, read, felt, and experienced since the day they popped out into the world. Even the bad stuff. And that sometimes things happen that trigger weird reactions in that big tangled messy ball, which starts fizzing and popping – sparks fly, strange bits link up which hadn’t linked up before, bells and buzzers go off, sparkly coloured lights flash, a honky thing honks… And that’s inspiration.

ps – This is what I think today. But tomorrow… Ah, well. Tomorrow is an entirely different story…

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