Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Mystery of Influence

Every once in a while somebody asks me who my influences are, and invariably I respond by naming a few of my favorite writers. I think that's what people are after when they ask this, and I like talking about my favorite writers, so I never think much about whether or not I'm actually telling the truth.

Influence is a funny thing. I'm not entirely sure how many of the writers I love are actually strong influences on my writing. They all are to an extent, of course. But I do know that I would never try to actually write, say, an Alice Munro story. Sometimes I'll write a sentence and realize I am aping her cadences. Or a character will speak and I'll find him uttering something more George Saunders than me; or I'll describe someone's manic nature and realize I'm channeling Raskolnikov.

But mostly, when I write something, it's coming from who I am, not who I've read--and who I am was (and is) formed by far more than books. Books are a big part of it, mind you, but how many hours a day do I spend reading? Not counting the internet? An hour or two, or three if I'm lucky. The rest of the time the extraliterary world is shaping me.

In any event, here are a few non-literary influences.

BULLIES. I have a real thing about injustice. When I'm kind of pissed off, and doing some tedious task, and my mind goes on autopilot, it usually spins some kind of fantasy about putting some asshole in his place, or getting into a fight. And winning, of course. I have never won a fight in my life, but there you go. I believe this comes from being bullied as a kid. Not a lot--but it doesn't take much, if you're a certain kind of person. My tormentor in grade school was Pete Rossnagle. In high school it was some other guy, I forget his name, a wrestler--he was a lot smaller than me, but I was...ah...a...pussy? Can I say that? It's not a word I am comfortable using, but that's what I was. Anyway, looking back, an awful lot of my writing involves people being treated with unjust hostility, or humiliated in front of others, or seething with unexpressed rage.

STEVE MARTIN. Not his writing. (Though I think he's pretty good at it.) His standup act. I technically was not allowed to listen to his records--they contained swearing--but Matt Zarbatany was, so I went to his house. It's weird, listening to a comedy record with a friend: where do your eyes go? At the turntable, generally, or the liner notes. "A Wild And Crazy Guy" introduced me to absurdity as an art form, and my sense of it was later strengthened by Monty Python, Edward Albee, Euegene Ionesco, "Schizopolis," and Ween. Among other people and things.

THE REPLACEMENTS. That is, the Minnapolis rock band. Their album "Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash" was a real eye-opener, as was "Hootenanny" soon afterward. I'd liked slicker, more produced music before this; even punk rock, which I appreciated but didn't love, had a kind of aggressive precision to it. These records, on the other hand, were just all over the place--drunken, inspired nonsense. Around this time (I was maybe 15) I stopped combing my hair (haven't done it since, in fact) and untucking my shirts. I began to like unresolved chords, unexpected plot twists. And sloppy girls started looking pretty good to me.

PAC-MAN. What was it about this game that was so freaking fascinating? I think it was the fact that it was a problem, with a solution. There were "patterns" you could use to "solve" the game--paths your Pac-Man could take that would guarantee the monsters wouldn't get him. Everybody had their own patterns, but when you watched other people play, you realized that there were a lot of common moves--the answers, in other words, were flexible, but adhered to general precepts. The game occupied my mind a great deal in 1983 and 1984, and I think I began to apply this idea to other areas of my life: that there were myriad answers to problems, but all the reasonable answers had certain similarities. I started seeing the infinity of possibility narrow from an infinity of infinities down to a manageable, cozy infinity. Which is what you need to do, to write a book. I am probably overstating this one, a bit, but there you go.

SHUFFLE MODE. Yes, on the iPod. I admit that there were moments, in my long, tedious drive to digitize my entire music collection, when I was almost certain I was wasting my time. But I hadn't counted on shuffle. Though there is a lot to be said about the value of the album as an artistic unit, listening to a random succession of songs, across all genres, has an equal and completely different worth unto itself. If the point of a recording is to capture a particular time and place, a specific human moment, then to listen in shuffle mode is to catapult oneself through temporal and geographic space—-to fly from room to room, from concert hall to motherboard, over the course of an entire century, all during a walk to the post office. Songs I used to think similar—-two separate, say, postpunk anticapitalist anthems recorded by different bands in the same year-—revealed themselves as sonically, temperamentally, and morally divergent. Go figure! I'm not sure what this has done to me, exactly, but I can feel it: some sort of new way of seeing the meaninglesness of categorization, and appreciating the diversity of tiny details. Or maybe it's just my excuse for owning a cool gadget.


the individual voice said...

That's all pretty fascinating, especially the technology influences. It makes me think that I must next tackle I-pod, which everyone in my household has but me. I just assummed it would be drudgery to compile to the music, but what rewards! And I've had offers to help from all corners of the house. Influences is interesting as a post and as a meme, the way you wrote it. I have meme on the brain for now. I'll keep it in mind.

jrlennon said...

Oh God, you don't need to have an iPod! I don't want to come off as advocating the thing...and yes, it's incredibly dull ripping all your CD's to it. But if you're a music lover, it can be a boon.

You could save money and just go play some Pac-Man...