Issue 73: Understanding your influences
6 min read

Issue 73: Understanding your influences

Congratulations to the winner of last issue’s giveaway, Zen, who will be receiving a signed copy of Elise Hu’s Flawless!

Last week, I got to talk about my NYT Spelling Bee obsession with my friend, Michelle Béland, for her appropriately named newsletter, Obsessed.

My boyfriend, E, does a chaotic thing where he’ll sometimes sit and watch fifteen minutes of a movie. Just fifteen minutes!! Or put on a single episode of a show he doesn’t even watch. Aside from the fact that he has much more self-control than I do (a glutton who is always rewatching some TV show in the background), he generally does this when he’s embarking on a new screenplay idea with his writing partner. Their ideation and writing process has evolved over the years, but they now have a distinct research phase. For each script, they have a list of films that influenced it.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been embarking on a *gulp* new idea for a longer project (somehow calling it a “novel” when it’s so nascent feels overreaching). Despite my distressingly type A personality, I’ve learned that outlining at this early stage can be a real creativity-killer for me. At the moment, I’m just jotting down plot points, random phrases, and character traits as they pop into my head, wanting to leave these unshaped for now so that connections can form more organically over time. But I’ve been reminded of a workshop application question I answered last year, asking for an artist statement that included “your motivations, inspirations, themes, and who you see your work in conversation with.”

While I’ve been simmering on this new idea, I’ve been journaling about my influences. I took one weekend to list all the books, short stories, and essays that deal with similar subjects I'm interested in and/or are particularly inspiring from a craft perspective. I reread stories and skimmed chapters, gathering quotes and finding common themes. (This is still less weird to me than microdosing a movie but alas, different disciplines.)

For E’s latest screenplay about an aspiring teenage serial killer, he watched the pilot of Dexter, which also has a serial killer as a protagonist, in order to understand how a character with no capacity for empathy can be compelling. I’m interested in sibling relationships, which is a central focus of Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi. But I also listed Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho as an influence, which illustrates the ebbs and flows of multi decade friendships.

I think there’s a slight distinction between what constitutes “research” vs. “influences.” Research applies to specific parts of projects to make its contained elements feel more true. Influences are more broad, impacting not just individual pieces of writing, but us as artists and how we create. There’s certainly overlap, but in both cases, it involves paying close attention to other artists and looking at their work with a discerning eye.

I’ve never explicitly avoided doing this kind of exercise, but it’s not something I’ve fully embraced either. It felt presumptuous to consider my work “in conversation” with my literary idols, or I thought that leaning too much on my influences diminished my own originality somehow. But reflecting on them now has animated my work in a new way. Not only has it crystallized my own interests and aims as a writer, it’s also motivated me in the act of writing itself by providing inspiration and examples to draw from.

One of Matt Bell’s recommendations in Refuse to Be Done for producing a first exploratory draft is to find generative epigraphs:

While drafting, I often find lines in the other books I’m reading that could be potential epigraphs for the one I’m writing. Some of these speak directly to the thematic material I’m trying to address, while others serve as examples of the kind of prose I’m striving to write.

Whenever I discover a bit of text like this, I stick it at the front of my manuscript (right after the cover page), so I see it first thing when I open the file. By the time I’m done, I often have five or ten or fifteen epigraphs, way more than can go in a finished book, but by then they’ve served their purpose, having reminded me of what I was trying to do with my novel when the draft itself couldn’t tell me.

Art isn’t created in a vacuum. Part of the joy of writing is feeling a broader sense of connection—to those whose work you read and to those who will read your work. What are your influences? What might be surprising about them? How can they spark your own creativity?

A screenshot from the TV show Seinfeld. George Costanza is dangling off a utility pole, happily proclaiming, "It's June! June! June!"

Creative resources

  • Becca Schuh on being both a writer and a server: “It has not made me a better writer. It’s made me lazy. It’s made me love money. It’s made me see that life is more than writing, it’s lessened my chokehold on dedication. I no longer identify as an ambitious person. I identify as a person who wants to make the life that they can scrape together as comfortable as possible.”
  • If you’re interested in personal essays and memoir, Lilly Dancyger will be teaching classes this summer on essay revision, the braided essay, hybrid memoir, and more.
  • An excellent interview from Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study with Rainesford Stauffer about her new book, All the Gold Stars, and reshaping the way we think about ambition. I loved her advice for warding off the worst parts of ambition by focusing on community: “The idea that the only good stuff is stuff we achieve alone can be so limiting and so boring. When we take what we care about and bring others into it, our ambition can expand.”
  • #1000wordsofsummer starts this week on June 17! Here’s everything you need to know about this two week communal writing project and be sure to preorder Jami Attenberg’s book, 1000 Words: A Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All-Year Round.
  • Check out One Story’s Summer Lecture Series on the craft of fiction. This year’s speakers include Jennifer Baker, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Yohanca Delgado, Jenzo DuQue, Lincoln Michel, Susan Perabo, and Jeanne Thornton.

Recent reads & other media

It’s summer, so that means a new Emily Henry book is out! Happy Place was enjoyable and made me want to jet to a Maine beachside town, though I found the friendships more compelling than the central romance. I loved All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews, which follows 22-year-old Sneha, a queer Indian immigrant, as she navigates work, friendship, and love in Milwaukee. Mathews’ prose captures millennial ennui and precarity, family longing, and romantic desire, all with immense humor and tenderness. (Also I can’t believe she wrote the book in four months!)

My sister, E, and I watched the last season of Never Have I Ever this past Sunday. Overall, it was a solid sendoff to some really great characters (don’t we all need a Trent in our lives?) and one of its enduring legacies will be its portrayal of Devi’s relationship with her mother.

Some friends and I watched Past Lives, Celine Song’s directorial debut. All the hype made me think I was going to be hiccupping and bawling in the theater (the guy who checked our tickets told us, “It makes grown men cry.”) But the movie is actually far more subtle. It’s very emotionally mature movie, by which I mean it evades a lot of easy drama and instead settles on complicated realities and relationships. By the time the last scene rolled, I found myself tearing up alongside other audience members.

Recently read short stories: “Sexual Tension” by Meredith Talusan, “Pioneer” by Lydia Conklin, “Biology Class” by Venita Blackburn, and “The One With The Multiverse” by Josh Riedel.

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~ meme myself and i ~

Book series should have spines that match aesthetically. Tuna the cat thinks he’s good at hiding. A tantalizing summer manicure. Realizing it was never trauma, just a canon event. This dog has so much attitude. A lesson about encountering an Asian water monitor lizard.

A 70s looking picture of fruity cocktails, with the caption: "If we have enough liquid treats we can survive the horrors."
via @northstardoll