I have become obsessed by the ‘Literary Criticism’ section in Waterstones. The shelves there are no longer what I remember from lit crit at uni but instead have more of the world on them. When I worked at the Stones we had an essays section but that’s gone and this fascinating hotch potch is all that’s left. You have reportage, life essays by writers, collections with essays around a theme, and guides to reading and the reading world and what to read and how to read and how writing is what saved people and how they can articulate their thoughts with such clarity and insight. It’s not lit crit, not really, it’s life writing but not biography. It’s what you get building up inside while you are doing other things. It’s the John Lennon quote. I’ve got all sorts of collections of essays on my shelves and over the last few weeks have been delving in essays written by women, women I admire, and am thinking, this is the stuff I want to try my hand at.
So while I was thinking about this I got an email from George Saunders newsletter Story Club. Story Club is about dissecting writing, breaking down short stories and examining them, with exercises to try out. It’s based around his last book, A Swim in A Pond In The Rain, and is free to subscribe to. One of the exercises is about your influences. He asks you to go through your life in 5-year chunks, and note what you were watching, listening to, experiencing, and who you were with at each time. It’s about you being honest about what you are really influenced by and not what you’d like to say to make yourself look good. Were you really influenced by Baudrillard or were you actually dancing to Meatloaf in your bedroom?
Despite me being hopeless at remembering when I did things, I managed to get a few influences down on the page and as I did so, I noticed a number of things. The first was that there have been several periods of my life when I have defined myself by what I didn’t like as much as what I did. This feels like an influence of sorts, if a perverse one, if only because it seemed important to other people too – they would comment on me not watching or listening or reading what they did. Sometimes I avoided these things on purpose, sometimes I just wasn’t interested. But other people would comment on this.
At the same time as I was conducting this exercise in memory, I was also reading Ann Patchett’s latest book of essays, These Precious Days, which contains an essay ‘Snoopy Taught Me to Be A Writer.’ It’s an essay about one of her influences: Peanuts, the comic strip, specifically Snoopy and lessons in writing that you can learn from Snoopy’s own writing career, typing away on top of his kennel. The symmetry of this reading and writing exercise struck me as serendipitous. I’d forgotten Snoopy was a writer. I remember him mostly flying his kennel in battles with the Red Baron.
I think it’s probably useful to consider what we mean by influences. There are things I love, things that bring joy and then there are things that make me think. These all exert influence in different ways. There are also things that make you realise how you want to be treated and how you want to try and treat others.
Saunders does ask us to include influences from people and experiences through our life as well. To start with, I used this to try and remember what I was doing and what I liked, read, watched at a certain age. But on further reflection this means I would include the following as influences:
- Bereavement and loss
- Singing really loudly
- Female support
Beyond that, here are my influences, in writing and in life:
- The Muppets. From an early age I loved the Muppets, Kermit birthday cakes and all. The Muppet Show was barely contained chaos, quick wit, general silliness and above all, kindness.
- Heroines in Nora Ephron movies. Well it’s Meg Ryan isn’t it, really? I’ll never do the hair or the adept way she can wear trousers and loafers but the smart, funny, slightly hung-up women with strong female support groups. Ephron movies (I guess I’m really discussing the big three here, the New York movies) often feature characters in doomed relationships with people who aren’t total arseholes, which feels novel – it’s so easy to portray the ‘wrong’ person as awful but it’s rarely that cut and dried in real life. I love that she portrays her heroines as intelligent working women first, with self-doubt and cute hair and lovely apartments. They get all that first, and only then do they also get the man and the big romantic ending.
- Musicals. The big life lesson to come from musicals is that you can get through any old shit. The best musicals finales are the ones where you and the cast have experienced absolute devastation and you know it’s time to move on. If you’re in need of a boost, sit and play the endings from Mack and Mabel, Hamilton, Blood Brothers and Les Miserables in a row and tell me you’re not left feeling bolstered and full of resilience afterwards. And bear in mind most of the characters in Les Miserables are dead by the finale. In addition, musicals make you aware of the possibilities of bursting into song and dance to mark any situation and who doesn’t want to do that?
- The West Wing (first 4 seasons obvs). Trendy innit, to knock the West Wing. Oh, it was so liberal and optimistic, they say, with a derisive snort. Yeah, what of it. But I wanted to be CJ. So smart, so funny, so tall, so elegant. It takes me about three weeks to think if a perfect retort to a quip so I admire anyone who can do the smart talk, even if it was scripted by Aaron Sorkin.
- Lyrics. Tom Waits lyrics. Leonard Cohen lyrics. REM lyrics. Kate Bush lyrics. I Am Kloot lyrics. I really admire lyric writing, it feels like it would be so difficult to do. I had to write some songs for one of my books and had to leave it till the end because I was so nervous about it. And to do it well, with emotion and pithy sentences and characters and the like, well I can only watch with admiration and turn those words over in my mind.
It did occur to me that while all the above are writing of some kind, none of these influences were novelists. I’m still debating the subtle differences between novels I read because I love them and enjoy them and novels I read and wish I could write like them. Often they’re the same. However, in the interests of balance, I think the influences are as follows:
- Maggie O’Farrell
- Barbara Trapido
- Richard Russo
- And Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather, which I read very slowly because I was busy copying out great long passages of text in admiration of her writing style.
These are the authors I read and envy their ability and their articulation. Plus, having now read a bunch of her essays, I feel like I should add Ann Patchett to the mix.
So that’s me and my influences. I’m really interested in yours!
*I hope that you, like me, are musicals fans and answered this blog title by belting out “I’m Jean Valjean!”