X-Dell asked an interesting question in my comments: “With respect to the previous post, did you ever consider that what you read early on was a better influence in some ways? After all, if you've read certain narratives all your life, wouldn't there be a temptation to re-create those tales instead of creating fresh ones?”
This came from my "Jealousy" post, and I got other interesting comments on that post, too. I thought I’d answer X-Dell here, and respond generally to the other comments as well. I always enjoy talking about influences. It’s a topic I find endlessly fascinating.
Humans learn throughout our life spans, but we are especially sensitive to learning during our early years. Language, for example, is largely acquired in the first 7 years of life. Other experiences have later sensitive periods. I believe that for most readers, and writers, the ages between 8 and 18 are of critical importance as influences. I discovered ERB’s Barsoom books at that time, and I’ve loved Sword & Planet fiction ever since. I still enjoy reading this type of fiction, even if, from an adult perspective, it’s not objectively well written. On the other hand, I never read a Doc Savage or Shadow adventure until my late twenties / early thirties, and I still find them Ho Hum.
I found Louis L’amour, John D. MacDonald, and Ray Bradbury early, and I don’t pass a day without riffing off one of their great themes in my own imagination. I even dream experiences influenced by these writers. But Cormac McCarthy, David Gemmell, and James Sallis, whose books I adore today, don’t have nearly that impact on the deep levels of my mind. When I try to incorporate themes in a story that I’m playing with from Hemingway, for example, I’m always completely conscious of what I’m doing. When I wrote the Taleran books I was almost completely “unconscious” as far as theme and content were concerned.
Being “unconscious” of one's sources has potential risks and potential benefits. On the risk side, it’s possible to stay so close to the original that you are simply writing pastiche. On the benefit side, being unconscious of influences allows a seamless mix and match of many influences into the blend that makes up true creativity. When there’s a little ERB, a little REH, a little Bradbury, a little L'Amour, Andre Norton, and Jim Kjelgaard, then no single influence predominates and the whole is a recipe for something new.
As a biological psychologist, though, I also believe there is an interaction between experience and biology. ERB and REH influenced me not only because I found them early, but also because they resonated with the biological bent of my imagination. As an example, take music. As a youngster, I heard “only” old time country music and whatever you call Lawrence Welk. I instantly disliked it, and dislike it to this day. The “moment” I first heard rock and roll, at around 13, I loved it. And from the first, I wanted to hear it louder and faster. I’m not biologically attuned to old style country music, like Merle Haggard, Porter Waggoner, and Hank Williams Sr. I’m attuned to AC DC, ZZ Top, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But once I discovered rock and roll, then “experience” played a role in my tastes. I heard the Stones before I ever heard The Beatles, and to this day I prefer the former to the latter.
The 8 to 18 age range is only an approximation, of course. I didn’t discover horror fiction until my early 20s, and yet it resonated so strongly that I quickly began writing it. I suspect that had I not found horror until my 30s it would be different. Even though horror came outside the 8 to 18 range for me, I notice that “individual” horror writers are only weak influences on me. I devoured everything by Lovecraft in my early twenties, for example, and yet today I don’t think his themes have influenced me much at all.
OK, enough rambling for now.