At our first meeting this term, my workshop instructor, Heidi, told us to come back next week with a list of our “artistic DNA,” ten works of literature that we felt most informed, influenced, or inspired our own work. She had been talking about Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” and the dreaded question of originality. I’m not particularly bothered by whether or not originality is possible; I know what I’m doing has been done, continues to be done, millions of times by people more and less eloquent than I am. I’m not here to compete with them…that’s too hard! Are you kidding? I’m just here to contribute. Nothing wrong with throwing another one on the pile.
The main issue of the assignment was the list: I was going to have to assess my own style and see how it stacks to others’. Which is also hard.
I reached back to early reading experiences, jumped forward to recent ones. As I compiled my rough list, it occurred to me that 1. Many of these pieces were dramatically different from one another, and 2. I was not sure if my own style was, actually, anything like those of the authors I was picking out.
Where to start? Jancee Dunn and David Sedaris show us how to tell stories gleefully, with humor and grace that informs but never feels like work. Reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was an awed experience of what fiction can do, and how many ways it can do it. The Left Hand of Darkness gave me SF that was also sociology, that was also anthropology, that was also a really cool story about camping.* Then, of course, there were the Flannery O’Connor stories that showed me beginning, middle, ending, and mean, horrible people concluding in justly violent ways. Of course, I have a spate of small pieces that sound a lot like Barthleme from the month I was reading 40 Stories. Kurt Vonnegut. Sherman Alexie. Deborah Eisenberg. Sister Carrie. A Bridge to Terebithia. Dhalgren. Yes, Dhalgren changed my life. Don’t tell me that you hate Dhalgren.
Of course, how was I to say I was influenced by both Barthleme AND Dreiser? What do they have in common? How would you put together Samuel Delaney and Katherine Patterson and say they melded to create something coherent in your brain?
I wasn’t picking out the books that subconsciously made up my writing vocab. I was listing the books I loved. The ones that, whether or not they showed up in my inflection, themes, or non/use of quotation marks, had made me love books enough to want to make my own. Is that the same thing? No idea.
Anyone else? What’s your artistic DNA?
*Fun fact: I love stories about camping.