“I think more than writers, the major influences on me have been European movies, jazz, and Abstract Expressionism.” - Don DeLillo
As writers, we each come to the table with something unique - or should. While the old adage “there’s nothing new under the sun” is often true, still - there’s always a way of taking what has gone before and somehow making it your own; and this can be done by the simple act of being honest with yourself and creating something that you feel in your heart and your guts; to approach what you do with what is uniquely you without trying to copy someone else or writing something you think people want to read. We usually start off by copying those we admire but sooner or later you have to find your own voice, find your own way of approaching the page. And we all have different aspirations, our own vision, and since we are individuals with differing experiences and sensibilities, naturally what comes out on the page is going to be something different.
In his essay, “Fires”, Raymond Carver discussed his influences and the general notion of what influences a writer - and it’s not only other writing. For him (as I’m sure it is for many others) it was life experiences, day to day observations, snippets of overheard conversation, memories, however vague or abstract. All of it goes into the mix. When I came across the Don DeLillo quote at the top of this post, it occurred to me that this is not only true in writing but in all art forms as well. There are many things that get thrown into the pot when we are creating something, even perhaps when we are unaware of it.
When I first started writing I wrote poetry exclusively for many years and I was coming to it as a musician who loved to read and write. I had no formal training, no writing classes, no MFA program that I attended. Poetry seemed like the natural thing being that I was a songwriter. The influences on those old poems were other poets, yes, but mainly they were more informed by my experiences, thoughts, observations, inward contemplation, political beliefs, current events, social trends, relationships, music, art, history, and so on. I wrote mainly “free verse” poetry, meaning, if I want to be honest with you and myself, that I was totally uninterested in form or even the “mechanics” of poetry. I couldn’t care less what constituted a sonnet, or a ballad, or whatever forms poetry takes. I had no schooling in writing poetry nor was I interested in any. So perhaps they weren’t “poems” in the true sense of the word, but merely “snapshots” of a particular thought or observation at the time they were being written. Essentially I was writing by ear and the type of poetry I was writing certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. As with fiction writing, or any other kind of writing, even the reader comes to it with their own sensibilities; and after many years of submitting poetry to literally hundreds of magazines, journals and publishers, you learn rather quickly how those sensibilities differ from one editor to the next, from one reader to the next. Poems rejected by one can quite often be accepted by others, as it had happened for me. But I managed a couple of chapbooks and landed these “poems” in about forty journals of varying type over the years, so they obviously worked on some people.
Fiction writing is a whole different ballgame and I came to it pretty much the same way. I soon learned that this approach wasn’t going to work and I was going to have to think things through a little if I wanted to come up with something viable. The first problem I encountered was what to write about. What was this novel going to be? I did what most writers do, I suppose. I “wrote what I knew.” I also took some cues from the novelists I was reading at the time, which was mostly experimental and Beat writers. Literally flying by the seat of my pants - and not really having any “writer friends” (other than the other poets I’d met via the small press scene at the time) - I basically went in blind. The books on writing didn’t help at all, since most of them seemed geared towards those who were writing genre fiction or those who sought to write something “marketable.” So I just dipped into the pool of writing influences I had at the time and went from there. It took a long time and what I wound up with was something of a story threaded within all the experiments and literary ideas that appealed to me at the time: stream of consciousness, cut-up writing, poetry, surrealism, etc. There were other influences too: film, particularly foreign films. It took many years to complete and in the end, I felt I had a flawed piece of work, but a worthy attempt nonetheless for a first effort. This novel, “November Rust,” wound up sitting in a drawer for a couple of years before I decided to release it - mainly for the hell of it. A lot of work went into it, why let it rot in a drawer? I figured the response to it would be the same as the response I got from my poetry. Some will like it, some won’t. It wasn’t the end of the world. In the meantime, I started thinking about my next book, and this is where I had the most trouble. I wanted to do something different from the first book, the question was, what exactly?
When I began the next novel, “Nadería”, I was pretty much in the same boat. I had written about 40-50 pages and thought that it wasn’t really anything different from the first book. I was at a loss. So I spent some time “learning”, reading books on writing, reading theory, discussing ideas with the few writer friends I had, still - nothing was happening. The problem, I later discovered, was that I was too “gunked up” with literary theory and it was, at least for me, blocking me from moving forward. I kept asking myself, “What is it that I am attempting to do here?” and seriously thinking about what kind of writer I wanted to be. An epiphany of sorts came like a bolt out of the blue one morning while sitting on the subway. It occurred to me that the reason why I was so blocked was because I was standing in my own way. I should approach writing in the same manner in which I approached music all those years. With music, I never limited myself. I was open to all kinds of music, listened to everything imaginable, absorbed it, and whatever I had written, threw all those influences and ideas into the mix to come up with something that would (hopefully) be my own thing. Why was it that I was limiting myself when it came to fiction? Why not approach it the same way? It was exactly the question I needed to ask myself.
Feeling inspired, nothing was off-limits. I began to read books outside my comfort zone, reading all kinds of books: fiction, poetry, history, biographies, you name it. I soon realized that I had many interests in many different things that weren’t necessarily literary related: art, film, philosophy, photography, music, history; why not dip into these waters as well? I began thinking “musically”, not that the prose would be “musical” but taking the same approach I took when writing music all those years - open the windows. Let it all in. Throw it all in, mix things up, and most importantly, remember that you are writing fiction.
Remember that you’re writing fiction. That was really the key to everything. It slowly dawned on me - sort of like a sunlight coming through the window - that I had been so influenced by the “write what you know” mantra that I had forgotten about all the other things I actually know. It wasn’t about what I experienced personally, but also observation and knowledge, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, the ability to project yourself into the mind or situation of another, the ability to listen to other people when they talk: their thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, stories, experiences, and so on; all of it ingredients for what can potentially be compelling storytelling. Once I stepped outside of myself, the floodgate of ideas opened and I suddenly realized that I had a treasure trove of ideas for stories that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with me. It occurred to me that I can say an awful lot via the “lives” of invented characters and their stories. Like I said, it was a sort of creative epiphany - one that may have been obvious to some all along - but for me, something I had to come around to understand and see clearly. It allowed me to shed the creative shackles that I had initially imposed on myself and I stopped worrying about labels, stopped worrying about whether what I was doing fit into any particular category, whether or not what I was writing was “Literary” and just focus on the storytelling element and allowing the thing to be what it wants to be. And it feels great too. Anything is possible and if one allows himself that sense of freedom there’s a good chance that eventually one could come up with something that is uniquely one’s own. And that is the goal here, isn’t it?