Managing Influence and Inspiration

by Aaron Wittwer

Every writer has influences, and most can name them. It’s the first question that any accomplished writer gets asked in nearly every general interview. Being the rampant cinephile that I am, most of my primary influences come from the film medium. These are the people and works I can list off that I know have some impact on the way I think when I sit down to write anything. The realism of John Cassavettes’s Love Streams, Andrzej Zulawski’s psycho-sexual nightmare Possession, and Russ Meyer’s bombastically groovy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls all sit in the back of my mind and pop their heads up whenever they feel like adding something to the story or style of whatever I’m writing. It’s not a conscious thing, and I often don’t recognize their impact until I look back on what I’ve written a few days later. These sort of overarching influences are mostly positive. Rather than trying to actively make my work like any one of these things, elements of all of them seep in naturally.
This is the important difference between letting yourself be influenced and blatantly trying to copy someone. While mimicking someone can be a great way to hone your skill, it’s no way to write publishable material. At least that’s what I’ve discovered as I’ve decided to take writing more seriously. There was a time when I’d intentionally try to write like whatever writer I was reading or mimic the dialogue style of whatever film I’d just seen.  I’d try to imitate the mood of a Hal Hartley film and end up with ten pages of sluggish, circular, nonsensicalrambling.  BECAUSE I’M NOT HAL HARTLEY!  Nor am I John Cassavetes, Andrzej Zulawski, Russ Meyer, Douglas Adams, Roger Zelazny or any of the other successful geniuses I’ve caught myself attempting (and disastrously failing) to imitate over the years. It’s best to just stop trying, and let all of these potential influences work on a subconscious level. Like I said, I’m often surprised by all of the similarities I can find between my work and that of my influences, even when I had no intent to mimic them. In fact, it’s unlikely that anybody else would even be able to pick up on these subtle similarities, just as it would be hard for my to trace the path between any other writer and a majority of their influences.
On the other side of all of this, I do find it incredibly helpful to keep a notebook on hand whenever I read a book or watch a film, so that I can jot down any moments of inspiration I may have. I usually write the title of whatever film or book I’m engaged in and then, underneath, keep a list of all of the ideas I have while watching it. These notes could include anything from general ideas for scenes, to specific lines from the work that I find “inspirational.” In this, I can trace many of story ideas back to their specific sources. However, to ensure that I don’t end up mimicking the “source” of any particular idea, I try to give some time for each individual idea in the notebook to gestate in my head and become something completely new. That’s when I start writing and my various subconscious influences set to work.
What does all of these mean for you? It just means that’d I’d suggest you stop trying to imitate every writer you love, and just start writing and idea that you’ve had and fallen in love with (likely while reading something by that writer you’ve been trying to imitate). Your brain is just a mush of everything you’ve ever seen and read, and your favorite works are likely the dominant force behind your subconscious anyway. Just write, and let whatever’s swirling around in there come out on its own.

[Editor’s Note: If you’re having trouble finding inspiration, check out today’s blog post by Anne Haben on beating writer’s block.  If you’ve been inspired by true events to write a historical fiction, check out Maye Ralston’s post today.  And be sure to tune in tomorrow for Spencer McNelly’s post on queer literature! – Lauren Burch]

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One Comment on “Managing Influence and Inspiration”

  1. Lauren Burch says:

    I like the distinction you make between being influenced by a source and trying to flat-out copy a work. Looking back on my own writing, I'm always shocked by how much I was inspired by something I didn't realize at the time of the writing. Still, by working with my influences not at the forefront of my mind, I've definitely created my own work, and it's usually work that I'm proud of. Often I hear people panic at the thought of something influencing their work, as though it means theirs is stolen or lesser. It's not, and the world needs more posts like this to point that out.


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