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What I'm Giving | November 25, 2013 0 comments
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
On the Subject of Influences Blatant, Less Blatant, Random or Otherwiseby Elizabeth Crane
Here's my whole thing about influences by way of a disclaimer: I wouldn't dare compare myself to any of the following people (nor do I imagine anyone else would), whose books I bow before nightly in solemn prayer. As a writer, whatever ends up inspiring you, you hope that your writing is its own thing, heretofore unprecedented in its uniqueness. That said, do I occasionally shamelessly rip people off? Er, yeah. Am I thoroughly inspired to write by books I love? Of course. Am I inspired by things that have nothing to do with books at all, like babies who seem to be speaking to me telepathically or songs by Pete Yorn or movies that could have been better? Often. Whether or not any of these things are necessarily reflected in my work probably isn't for me to decide.
So but okay, I should start by saying, by confessing, that for years, I read a lot of how to be kind trashy novels, and I watched soap operas, and went to see movies like Roller Boogie. It's true. I had always loved reading and went to a pretty nice prep school in Manhattan, where we were assigned some really great books that were often way too advanced for our reading levels. (e.g. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut in sixth grade, which I loved, in spite of having no comprehension of what it was about, for the language and the character names and lists. My friends and I briefly formed a religion, with text, inspired by the book, centered on the wearing of a particular style of buckled loafer.) We read The Catcher in the Rye the following year too, which I'm sure I didn't fully understand either, but loved just the same. (Later on, in spite of the excellence of the reading lists, I'd be skipping a lot of the reading assignments. I had a big thing then, and still do, about reading something I have to read. So if I ever read, say Ulysses, it will likely be because it randomly got into my head that I wanted to. But don't count on a book report on that any time soon.) In any case, somewhere along the line, I started reading these trashy epics, and as I tend to be a little slow on the mark in nearly every aspect of my life, it took me a number of years to get bored (with those and the soaps, too) and realize I was essentially reading the same book over and over with different names and locations. Sometimes I even knew what the next line would be. The unfortunate thing was that I hadn't found anything to replace it with that really floated my boat. Until. Almost thirteen years ago I found myself temping in the literary department of a talent agency in New York and someone handed me a copy of The Broom of the System. Boat in float. Boat up and out of the water and circling overhead. So.
Re: shameless off-ripping. For years I've been blathering about my love for all things David Foster Wallace to anyone who would listen. Now I get to carry my message of hope nationwide. There's a ten-page story in my collection with nineteen footnotes or maybe I should call it nineteen footnotes with a ten-page story and I'd be flat-out lying if I said I woke up one morning and came up with this genius idea of where to put all my tangential thoughts. (I had always been fond of parentheses [and brackets!], but to me this use of footnotes was revolutionary.) Yet in spite of the footnotes, and the long sentences, and the parens., and sentences that begin with But or So or Anyway or And or any and all of the above, I don't anticipate a comparison anytime soon. For me, pinpointing influences is a more nebulous exercise. From the time TBOTS fell into my hands, and Infinite Jest and numerous books by other authors, I began to see that it was okay, possibly even a good thing, to break rules (which had been tripping me up in a major way; for one thing, I felt compelled to try to describe things specifically in a physical way, settings in particular, but sometimes people too, and honestly, I suck at straightforward descriptions of trees and such, not to mention that things like that didn't seem relevant enough to my universe, trees, having grown up in NY not that I couldn't just as well describe buildings, except for that I couldn't, and I've always been much more interested in getting right to the characters anyway, and so with regard to any kind of description, I think I'm more interested than anything in some little detail about a person that seems to say a million things: for example, I don't think my agent will mind too much if I tell you that she doesn't carry a purse I haven't ever written anything about her, but the point is, it's of endless fascination to me, several years later, that a high-powered New York agent wouldn't need some kind of a bag to carry around all her agenty things note use of "agenty" as adjective, as evidence of my describing problem that anyone, agents aside, could be so carefree that they don't carry around a bag full of stuff just in case, like me, and so it of course follows that she doesn't wear makeup [and doesn't need to, and therefore does not also need, in the bag she doesn't carry, a bag inside the bag, full of makeup] and so you see, given those two little bits of information, you can elicit that Alice is a naturally pretty, low-maintenance-type person), that there was room for me to write the way I thought people sounded (or thought) in real life, often rambling and sometimes with a dearth of periods but hopefully always coming back around and making sense as a whole, in the end. (But you know, draw your own conclusions about that when you're finished with this essay.) This would later be confirmed for me reading anything and everything by (to name only a few) Lydia Davis, Rick Moody, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders (whose work I'm so madly in love with it pains me) and continues with the blessed likes of Aimee Bender, Arthur Bradford and Gabe Hudson (even though his book, Dear Mr. President, came out after mine was completed but in the unlikely event that I write anything vaguely war-related in the future, you'll know how the inspiration struck). With regard to Saunders, Bradford, and Bender, I was reminded that when I was quite a bit younger, many of my stories had fantastical elements: in junior high I'd written a novella about a fictional creature called a Gerfl that lived under the dining room table (props to my sister Susan, who was about four at the time and originated the Gerfl as part of a game), and in college I wrote what might be called a young adult novel about a baby born in an empty room whose goal is (ostensibly) to get onto the Johnny Carson show (in fact she's really looking for her parents). And so after reading stories like Bradford's "Dogs," in which a man has an, um, improper relationship with his girlfriend's dog (resulting in the birth of a litter of puppies and one small dogchild), I was moved to bring elements of fantasy into my own work again, as in "Christina," a story about a woman whose roommate is a ghost baby or "Return from the Depot!," in which the narrator's mother comes back from the dead and becomes a sitcom star. (Sidebar: a nice bonus of writing is that you can bring people you love back from the dead, at least on the page. To the best of my knowledge, however, my mom is not in fact living in L.A. with her new husband Alan Thicke.) Regardless of whether any of these influences come through in my writing, at the very least, it's safe to say that my reading habits have changed dramatically for the better.
But I still like a good B movie every now and again.