Under the Influence

Erin Morgenstern wrote a blog post the other day on how her writing isn’t just influenced by other writing, but by a varied array of sources. This really hit home with me because for a long time, I felt a little weird that my poetry and prose wasn’t entirely influenced by other poetry and prose. In fact, my writing is often influenced more by things other than writing.

Music has always been important to me, and my writing is very influenced by musicians and bands that I love. Sometimes it’s the lyrics, the way words are put together or repeated. Sometimes it’s the structure of a song, influencing the structure of a poem or story.. Sometimes it’s the way the music is sparse or how it becomes a wall of sound. Sometimes it’s the idea behind the music, the way an artist or group of artists take bits from different forms of music and put them together into something amazing. When I was a freshman at the University of Iowa, I told a fellow student and poet that my poetry was at least as influenced and informed by my favorite postpunk music as it was poems. He said that was terrible. I just shrugged. (A little over 10 years ago, my poetry–and the way I performed it–also became heavily influenced by stand-up comedy and vaudeville, as well as the Beats.)

Later in college, I started regularly reading Art in America and other art magazines. Reading about different painters, printmakers, sculptors, photographers, collagists and mixed media artists was very inspiring to me in my prose and poetry. The images they came up with, the way they worked, the ideas they were trying to convey influenced the stories and poems I came up with. And thanks to Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and a girlfriend majoring in Art History, I became very, very influenced by Dada and Surrealist poetry, painting, collage, and performance. Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces tied in punk, Dada, and Situationist ideas for me, further influencing my writing. (This all also influenced my academic work, which not all of my professors appreciated.)

I’ve been a monstrous consumer of TV shows and movies all of my life, and these clearly influence my prose and poetry. Same goes for comics. Sometimes, an idea for a story will sit in my head with an imaginary cover that looks like a movie poster or a Golden Age comic book. I often think of plotlines in terms of TV show seasons or serialized comic books. I’ve also become more and more influenced by video games, which probably started with Myst. Lately, the plot threads and high-level imagination of Wizard101 and Pirate101 have been very inspirational to me. I’m influenced by the visual design, the world building, and the story lines. I also think about the fun of game play and ponder how that can be infused in the writing and reading of short stories and novels. And I tend to approach the world- and character-building of fiction in the same way I approach it when playing tabletop role-playing games.

I’m leaving many more influences out. Honestly, it would take many blog posts to really go into all of my influences, and I’m probably not entirely aware of all of them. Who knows all the magic and madness that lurks in the minds of writers?

Reality and art seep into us in a colorful variety of ways, from a colorful variety of sources. To say that the art we create and the influences in our lives come from only one kind of source is severely limiting. And anyone who says it is almost certainly lying. Or incredibly un-self-aware. I think the best art is a collage of stolen ideas, images, sounds, sensations, memories. Get excited by things, copy them, mix and mash them up, and share what you make with others. Is there any other way to do it?

Like the Back of My Hand

There’s that ancient writing advice, “Write what you know.” I’ve always taken that to mean you should write about the things in your life, the things that have happened to you, the things you’re familiar with. As someone who’s always primarily written imaginative, fantastic fiction and surreal poetry, that advice never seemed particularly useful to me.

But it just occurred to me that the advice is really telling you to steal from the sources you love the most, to let your writing be infused with the things that you’ve read, watched, listened to, etc over and over again to the point where they’re permanently camped in your subconscious. While it’s important to expose yourself to a wide variety of art and culture, you shouldn’t have to read new things just to be a writer. Write what you know.

Superhero comics, Doctor Who, the Star Wars movies, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Casablanca, The Hobbit, Babylon 5, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire SlayerSports NightSomething Wicked This Way Comes, The Worm Ouroboros, The Gormenghast Trilogy, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Princess of Mars…these things are indelibly inked into my brain, dancing in my mind like drunk, happy goblins. If I write what I know, what I know is this.

That makes the advice extremely useful. And a hell of a lot of fun.

Begging for Change

If you haven’t watched Amanda Fucking Palmer‘s TED talk, watch it right the hell now:

OK? Good. Now.

I have a whole lot of thoughts about this, not all of them potentially coherent, but I’ll try and be as sensical (you know, the opposite of nonsensical) as I can be.

I love Amanda’s talk, I find it incredibly inspirational, but I don’t think it’s all that revolutionary or new. (And I suspect she’d agree with me on this.) People have been giving their art and craft away–or exchanging it for things other than money, or just asking for handouts for support–for a long, long time. Charging money for art and craft, based on that art and craft being labor, isn’t something inherent to art and craft. It might be inherent to capitalism, but capitalism is really fucking weird, and I’m not really capitalism’s biggest fan. As Hank Green said in response to Amanda’s talk, “Why is it weird to get rich off of gifts, but normal to get rich off of exploitation of need?” Although I’ve wrestled with my own embarrassment over asking people for money, I don’t think there’s anything shameful in asking for money. There’s nothing shameful in begging. Hell, every advertisement you see on TV, every tweet an author posts that links to their book on Amazon, is a form of begging. Why is one form of begging better than another? Why is one more shameful?

Personally, I’d rather give my art and craft away, even if it means I can’t make a living solely from doing it. I’d rather find ways to let people give me money rather than find ways to make them give me money. Or as Cory Doctorow put it, I’d rather think like a dandelion. But then, the idea that my art and craft were labor that needed to be valued by money has never really appealed to me.

But of course, we live in a huge, complicated society, and if you want to go the commercial route, there’s nothing stopping you from doing that (and plenty of ways in which that path is supported and encouraged). And happily, as Amanda says in her talk, the ways in which we can exchange art and craft differently are expanding. Change is good. Variety is good.

That’s all, folks!

Pleasure, With a Side of Relish

I’m rather fond of the phrase “sharing is caring,” and not just because it rhymes. I’ve recently realized that sharing isn’t just caring for me, it’s an essential part of who I am. When I get excited about things, I want to share them with other people. I figure it’s an extrovert thing. It’s not enough for me to just love it and be excited about it, I have to share my excitement with others.

I’m quite happy to go to the movies on my own. But if it’s a movie I’ve seen before, I don’t just want to watch it alone, I want to show it to my friends and loved ones. “You’ve never seen Casablanca? WE MUST WATCH IT RIGHT NOW!” “You’ve only seen the new Doctor Who? WE MUST WATCH CLASSIC WHO TOGETHER!” It’s what started the tradition my daughter and I had for years of watching nerdy stuff together on Saturday or Sunday mornings, generally me introducing her to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, Babylon 5, and more. (We usually referred to it as our “Daddy-Daughter Weekend Geek-Out.”) The first time my companion Brooke and I hung out together, I showed her the first two series of Black Books. It’s one of the best things about friendships and romantic relationships: sharing things you love with each other.

One of the things I love most about working in libraries is that I get to share things I’m excited about. I get to write reviews, create recommended reading lists, and put books and movies I love directly into the hands of patrons. And it works both ways: this morning, a patron brought a book up to me and said, “I’m returning this, but I just wanted to tell you that it’s an excellent book, especially for teens. I loved it.” I was thrilled to have a patron rave about a book and immediately put it on my to-read list. (In case you’re wondering, the book is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. It has nothing to do with Twilight fanfic.)

It’s also a big reason why I write. My head is full of images, words, phrases, characters, worlds, and stories. There are books, comics, movies, TV shows, music, people, places, and experiences that inspire me to create. I want to share all of this with people, so I write poetry and fiction. And it’s why I write this blog. I mean, I could just write all this stuff in a journal and share it with no one, but that would drive me crazy. I need to share my thoughts–as half-baked and loopy, as personal and raw as they may be–with other people.

Get excited and share things.

“For pleasure has no relish unless we share it.” — Virginia Woolf

Turn, Turn, Turn

I haven’t been writing much fiction lately. Or poetry. Or…well, really much of anything. And when I say “haven’t been writing much” I mean “haven’t been writing at all.” This happens at times, and I generally chastise myself for being so “slack” and lament being “lazy and uninspired.” I should just power through this, right?

A recent discussion on my new favorite internet hangout got me thinking about cycles of creativity, energy, and inspiration. I realized that I’ve often felt uninspired, easily bored, spectacularly unfocused and fairly depressed during the summer months. I can remember summers when I could finish a single book I started reading, had no energy whatsoever, and couldn’t concentrate on anything except superficial things. I’ve never done well in heat and humidity, and I’m starting to suspect that lots of bright sunlight overwhelms my senses. On the other hand, during autumn, winter and spring, I tend to feel incredibly inspired, bursting with energy and creativity and enthusiasm. When it’s dark and rainy or snowy outside, I want to stay in the house and devote long hours to writing and creating.

Realizing this is helping me stop scolding myself for not doing much this summer. Instead, I’m thinking of ways I can prepare myself for the rush of energy and creativity when autumn gets here, getting ready to focus that energy and creativity, rather than waste it in true ADD style.

To everything there is a season, and I think I’m finding mine.

Lipstick Traces

Meanwhile, in New York, 1978…

It was the beginning of my 3rd grade school year, and I bought a copy of Firestorm the Nuclear Man #4 with my allowance. Firestorm the Nuclear Man #4

There was something about the character that really grabbed me. Maybe it was his odd name, or his bright, garish costume. Maybe it was that he was a sarcastic smartass or that he had weird powers (he could turn one object into another, like in this issue when he turns the air around a gang of robbers into a huge, plastic pumpkin). Or maybe it’s that HIS HEAD WAS CONSTANTLY ON FIRE. Whatever it was, this comic in particular appealed to me. I got a pad of tracing paper and traced every page of the comic, including the cover. I renamed the main character (to the less dynamic “Flamethrower the Burning Man”) and rewrote all of the dialogue.

I wasn’t thinking about it at the time–in fact, I didn’t think about it until just now–but I was learning how to write when I did this. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but deep down, I was paying attention to panel layout and plotting, framing and narration, and, of course, dialogue. It was practice for when I wrote and drew my own comics that same year. But it was also practice and self-education for my writing now. I’m still thinking about how to create colorful, engaging characters, write fun dialogue, and produce stories that inspire other people to dream and create.

To be continued…