Defining Influence

Influence defintion

One of the many things that differentiates book authorship from magazine writing is that, as a book author, I'm often asked to name my literary influences. I can't ever remember anyone asking me to name such a thing as a magazine writer. Generally speaking, no one much cares what a magazine writer's influences are, only that they've managed to piece together a cohesive story on a compelling subject and, ideally, spelled most of the words correctly.

I've always found my answers to the "influence" question to be a bit slippery. My assumption has typically been that the asker is expecting me to rattle off the names of a bunch of famous (or possibly not so famous) authors whose books impacted me so deeply, they affected the way I write.

I can certainly list the names of the books I've read. You don't grow up with an English teacher for a father and not end up mainlining the great works of literature, the lesser works of literature, and just about everything in between. I'm just not certain how much influence most of those books had on my individual writing style. Not very much, would be my guess. Like most people, I'm influenced by just about everything I see and hear and not just by what I read. As a result, I usually give answers to the "influence" question that are, at best, inadequate and, at worst, downright appalling.

I'd like to take another stab at answering that question here today, this time not limiting myself to the literary realm which seems destined to perpetually trip me up. What tends to influence me as a writer is what influences me as a thinker, particularly when it comes to the way stories are told. There is an expected flow to the way stories are told but, every once in a rare while, I'll come across one that flows in a different, often challenging, way and that's what tends to draw me in. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind, as does Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia and Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, and David Lynch's Twin Peaks reboot are also on that list. These aren't the only examples, they're just the ones that come readily to mind.

Not all of the stories listed above make sense the first time through. Some of them don't make sense the 100th time through. But there's no question that each of these stories is true to the vision of its creator. And it's an honour that we get to witness these complicated, often confounding, realizations.

As a writer, it's important to be reminded that a story doesn't need to be a hundred percent decipherable to be compelling. You don't have to answer every question or tie up every loose thread. Often the beauty of a story comes in what it leaves unanswered. The job of a writer is to take readers to a place where their imaginations can take flight, allowing the writer's vision and theirs to intertwine. That's where the magic occurs. And, by extension, the influence.

I don't really know what the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey means. I'm not sure anyone does. But I do know that over 30 years after I first watched that film, I still ponder it, just as I'll continue to ponder everything that went down in the Twin Peaks reboot even though I can't say that I understood a hundred percent of that story either. I can't honestly say that I'll ponder or even remember in any detail most of the books that I've read in the past year. That inevitably means that those stories won't have any notable impact on either my writing style or my continuing existence.

With all that in mind, it's probably best that when I'm asked to name my influences that I stop trying to limit my answers to literature and throw my mind wider, including those stories that I've been exposed to across a variety of mediums and have not yet forgotten.