I was going to write a post today about my writing influences, tossing a salad of Annie Dillard and Atwood, a tangled pasta of Twain and Fitzgerald, spicy sides of Nabokov and Vonnegut, a shot of Cormac McCarthy, neat. But then I thought that sounded a mite pretentious, as though I could even carry the keyboards of those authors (or even tilt Twain’s first typesetting machine, one of his legacy of infernal investments). And who’s to say that I wasn’t just as influenced by the comic books I devoured (I wanted to name a pet after Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer), or the sports magazines that filled my mind with shimmering baseball diamonds and long fly balls caught after an impossible run?
Influences are a tricky thing. Of course I think you should steal freely the scent of another author’s writing, that ungraspable soupçon of ephemera that is clumsily dubbed “style.” That’s because you’ll catch your tongue in the literary rat trap if you try to directly steal the substance of another’s writing. Mumbling out inane imitations will be your sorry fate. Snagging some stylings is more subtle theft, like being able to mimic the way an author buttons her coat, rather than actually buying—and eek!—wearing the same clothes.
Blood as Influence
But thinking of influences made me think of other influences from way back: my parents. I have so much to be grateful for in having a mother who didn’t harangue me and my siblings about reading as a necessity, but instead, took so much pleasure in reading herself. You’ll develop a hunger for something in watching another eagerly eat it. There were always books around the house, and the relaxed sense that wiling away some hours nose-deep in a tome wasn’t a way to waste time but to explore it: books are time travels, the widest carpets of brilliant flowers on the steppes, a landowner’s cruel glance at the starveling slave, the wince from a princess as she turns her delicate ankle stepping from the liveried carriage. My mother welcomingly invited me into that parlor of pleasant musings and savage astonishments, and I haven’t looked back. And see my mother, nearly blind at 88, still reading for pleasure. Why? Because she enjoys the sound of the words in her head, the images, the story. I know; she taught me.
My father wasn’t a big reader, more inclined to the peppered nuggets of the newspaper than the seven-course meals of Russian novels, but again, I might never have been the reader, and thus the writer, that I am had he not schooled me in how to throw a baseball, how to shoot a basketball, things that impelled me to read biography after biography of my sports heroes (and to admire the tight turns-of-phrase of gifted sportswriters).
I was struck recently, in watching my father slowly work to pull off the tinfoil cover of a yogurt cup, how we have some of the same traits. My father is 93, and richly caped in the folds of his Alzheimer’s, yet some crossbeams of character persist. He can still haltingly feed himself, and I watched in fascination as he was slowly spooning yogurt into his mouth. Eyes barely open, he noticed that the tinfoil lid that covered the cup was still attached, and he very s-l-o-w-l-y worked it off with his weakened hands. It took a while, and visible effort, but I could see the small satisfaction in his face when he succeeded in removing it from the cup.
The Gene Pool of Picking Nits
That resonated with me, because I am a nitpicker, literally one who will spot the tiny bits of fluff on the carpet and bend to pick them up, and metaphorically so in my work as an editor, trying to manage errant (or arrogant) punctuation marks, making sure there aren’t two spaces when there should be one. Floating deeply in his condition, his language now restricted to short, sometimes muddy sentences, my father still notices some detail: “Why is that car door open?” in reference to a car parked outside, a reminder of my own fussiness about details. My father, editing the hanging lid, the out-of-place open car door. Writing, while ever the work of the lone temperament, in the interior of imagination’s house, always has an ear turned to hear the voices that populated the rooms in times past.
Whatever writing I do, my parents’ pulse beats along with mine.
Oh yeah, the picture: my parents, my siblings and me, approximately one thousand years ago. I’m the blond-haired punk, hoping against hope that I’ll get a cookie to take the pain out of this dreadful photo session. Those other kids are just troublemakers.