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Moon Landings, Brain Filters, and Cows: On Inspiration

My dad moved out of my parents’ house this past spring, and as part of his downsizing, he sent me a colossal box that includes a lot of the standard-issue kid paper paraphernalia: those little blue books you use for journals in elementary school, class pictures full of kids who are also pushing 30 these days, misspelled handmade Christmas cards, etc. But my box contained an additional set of bonus material: some of my earliest written work. And in reviewing it this last week or so, I’ve come to two conclusions:

 1)      Being influenced by our favorite authors is inevitable, and probably something none of us can ever really get away from.

 2)      It seems some authors really do get genre-locked early.

Going back through my old writing is pretty much a road map of what I was reading at any given time. In fourth grade, for instance, I was into the American Girls and the Babysitters Club, so my best friend and I wrote a story about two immigrant girls who met on a ship sailing to America (mixing American Girl Kirsten Larson with, I think, the beginning of this book), and another one where disaster almost ensues for a trio of sisters when one of them is hurt and loses her diabetic Med-Alert bracelet (as any girl who grew up in the ‘80s knows, Stacey from the Babysitters Club had diabetes).

My stories might no longer be quite so focused on the exploits of pre-teen girls, but I still feel the influences of my favorite authors; when I went off to college spinning dreams of my first novel in my head, I brought Stephen King’s The Stand with me as a model for a post-apocalyptic road trip story. I think any of us who tries to hammer along in this writing life knows you can’t help but be influenced by what you read, and I suspect a lot of us try to take advantage of that. I still pull out LeGuin when I’m trying to figure out how to work cultural stuff into a scene without feeling info-dumpy, or looking at Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series to see how an author handles a heavy character dialect. It’s one of the reasons I’m not anti-fanfic, despite agreeing with some of the fundamentals of the arguments made by folks like GRRM; as far as learning craft goes, I think imitating the greats in any art is a solid way to get the start of your ten thousand hours in.

The other thing I noticed in my review of my old writing is that I’ve had a few themes solidly in place since the beginning. One of the earliest pieces in my collection, carefully dated by my mother as coming from March 1989 when I was not-quite-six, is titled “The Lifestyle of Bossie the Calf.” (Yes, I had a freakishly large vocabulary. I read a LOT as a kid). It has the lumpy drawings you’d expect from a kindergartener, and is actually transcribed by my mom, because I was too much of a perfectionist to approve of my own handwriting at that age – but the plot is pretty clear, and it shares two elements with a lot of my later work: the story covers a huge span of time, and it doesn’t skimp on the grimness. We start when the title character’s born, and over the next 17 pages, make our way through her life, and that of her son and granddaughter – and there’s a pattern to things. A cow is born; they grow up; their mother dies of old age; and then they take a bath in a bathtub made out of her skin.

Yeah. My five-year-old self thought that was an important detail to include, apparently.

Thing is, though… I’ve never really gotten past that impulse. I may not have my characters bathing in tubs made out of their parents’ skin these days, but I will never be what you might call a “happily-ever-after” kind of writer. I’m never more gleeful than when I get to write up some terrible thing happening to one of my characters (Fantastifiers, take hope – the doom you are all asking for is coming, in spades!). And it’s not like I’m a tortured artist type who’s using my fiction to work out my own issues; really, as lives go, mine is (and has generally been) a pretty happy one. Angst and horribleness is just the kind of stuff that comes out of my pen.

It makes me think of something I read from Stephen King once, one of the answers he gives to where he gets his ideas. He says that the way he thinks of it, each of us has a mind that basically works like a sink, where most of the stuff we encounter every day runs through it and goes right down the drain, but some stuff gets stuck – for him, that stuff is the creepy stuff. For me, I think it’s the angsty stuff, like this speech that was written for President Nixon to deliver in the case that Armstrong and Aldrin were unrecoverable from the moon. The words are quite moving, but the part that sticks in my filter – the angsty part – is the instructions at the end:

Prior to the President’s  statement:

The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.

After the President’s statement, at the point when NASA ends communication with the men:

A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to the “deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

I think it’s the words “widows-to-be” that do it for me; the idea that you could be some astronaut’s wife, sitting at home watching your husband walk on the Moon, and then suddenly your phone might ring and it’d be the President and he’d tell you that there’s no way your husband’s ever coming home again.

Maybe I’ll write that story someday, if I ever finish my current project… or maybe it’ll end up wound into my project somehow, that notion of someone getting bad news that hasn’t happened yet and that they’re powerless to change. ‘Cause that’s where all of us get our ideas from, after all, in the end. Whether it’s other authors’ work, or things we see on Facebook, or stories our friends tell, or just one of those little thoughts that flits through our head at a rate of a hundred a day, if you’re a creative type, your work is going to reflect it. None of us writes in a vacuum.

So maybe I’ll dive back into my big box o’ writing sometime over the weekend, see if I can get some inspiration from my little-kid self. I might leave the skin bathtubs out of it, though.

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1 Comment

  1. Matt

     /  December 3, 2012

    Did somebody say “doom?” *looks around*

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