Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Influence Thing

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.

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38 comments:

Steve Malley said...

Even your rambling has a concisely reasoned quality.

Am I right in that your idea of the biological basis for imagination has each of us 'pre-wired' to respond to different influences? Almost like a sense of destiny?

Or do I go too far?

Heff said...

The same is true of song writing. Influences are everywhere.

Mary Witzl said...

Oh God, Lawrence Welk. Don't get me started on Lawrence Welk! I had to listen to his show every week and it was pure agony. The bubbles and those cheesy clothes and the couples dancing at the end...

All those other C & W singers bugged me no end. My parents liked them and I dreaded anyone knowing that my family listened to them. I still groan at the thought of Lawrence Welk, but I love those C & W guys now.

Now I'm wondering what kind of music I'd have gone for if my parents had enjoyed acid rock...

Lisa said...

This is an interesting idea and I have to agree with you -- especially about 8 somehow being a magical time when lifelong influences take root. There was always music playing when I was growing up and my taste definitely began with what I first heard and went from there. I still love everything I can remember hearing -- a mix of classical, jazz and early folk and rock. Nobody listened to country (I'm from Boston, so that kind of explains that) and to this day, it jangles my nerves. There were a lot of books around too -- a mix of classics and popular fiction. I found Stephen King on my own and was hooked on him for a decade. Nobody read any romance, westerns, pulp fiction, fantasy or much sci-fi and I guess it's not a big surprise it never caught my attention either.

laughingwolf said...

i have no clue who or what has influenced my writing... over the course of 30+ years, i've read more than 5,000 books

hitler said if he had a child to bring up, by age six he'd have it totally 'his'

great points, you make....

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, I wouldn't put it quite that way. I think we come into the world with certain types of nervous systems and certain biochemical ways of reacting to the world. Some people, for example have low levels of a chemical called Anandamide, which means they are unlikely to be abusers of pot. Some people like stimulants because of their biochemistry, while others like depressants. Some like aggressive music and others less so, because of the interaction between the music and the person's nervous system.

Heff, and probably for the visual arts like painting and so on too.

Mary Witzl, my mom LOVED Lawrence Welk, and we watched it every week, but I always found it agony too.

Lisa, the only people in my family who read were my sister and her husband. I borrowed lots of books from them, but got my interests partially from what was available at the library.

Laughingwolf, I've definitely read in just about every genre over the years, and have typically found stuff of worth everywhere.

Greg Schwartz said...

i agree with your ideas on influence... the whole "nature vs. nurture" thing.

i think the more you are exposed to, the better. it gives you a wider platform for your creativity to leap from, and it also helps you figure out what you like and don't like.

Travis said...

I think there can also an element of contrariness in the development of our likes and dislikes. Before we have real experience to make our choices, we might go along with what family likes.

But then we get a bit older and start to expand our experience, and we find things we like. We might run them past people to get their reactions. Any dislike could only re-enforce what we like.

Or something like that.

ChrisEldin said...

First of all, love the pics in the post below! Toooooo cute!!!

I was going to say the same as steve--this is not a rambling.

I see what you're saying, but for me personally I think I've come into my own much much later in life. I do love country music and Elvis Presley which I heard as a child. But I equally enjoy other forms of music that I wasn't exposed to until college. Same goes with books. Fascinating to think about though. I think it has deeper ramifications.

the walking man said...

I would suppose that everything written or performed is a simulacrum of every thing taken in before the production of the new work. That is to say that everything the eyes, ears, nose, hands and, heart has ever taken in is an influence on the output of the day.

I don't think it is a conscious thought that begins creativity but certainly is one that directs the artist to the final effort; whatever form that effort arrives in.

As much as influences, I like triggers. What triggers a creative thought? A sight, a sound, a smell, an event?

Music...the first music I remember hearing is large symphonic works, the old man loved classical music from there I refined my tastes to the Baroque period. I remember hearing Buddy Holly and Josh white Jr. and of course tons of Motown but when you talk of Rock and roll when I was much younger I liked the Beatles and the Stones but I bought The Who.

Never was tortured by LW though. Today if you saw my play list, which I always have going when working at the PC, you'd see every genre represented, Classical, Country, Blues, Blue Grass, Folk and R&R (metal, pop, acid rock,) and Rap. It's all good.

Bernita said...

As usual, I agree. My experience is/was the same - even unto the country and western.

ivan said...

Funny thing. Looking back at my childhood it was indeed Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey (after the comic books)once I began to read American fiction.
But there was no way I'd ever write a duster.

I read Oscar Wilde's "The Star Child in another language at the age of seven and that influence seemed even deeper. And Jules Verne, of course, in Ukrainian, god help us!
Dick and Jane were a real drag once I got to Canada, sneaking a copy of a Gogol novel under my desk when I was suposed to see Spot run.
Heh. I think I still see spots.

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, I definitely think wide exposure is a good thing because if feeds into that deep well.

Travis, I've often thought people made certain choices based on being contrary to parents or others, but I don't feel like I've done that so it's hard to say whether others might have or not.

ChrisEldin, maybe some folks remain more open as adults than others. Once my musical tastes crystalized I really haven't developed tastes for other types. I can appreciate some of those types intellectually, but I don't feel them emotionally.

Mark, I agree that everything becomes grist for the creative mill, but I think childhood things often have a power that later experiences never obtain. Your taste in music is "much" more eclectic than mine.

Bernita, I can respect that kind of music, but I just don't "feel" it.

Ivan, I've written a duster or two myself. I was constantly looking for bigger, more adult things to read as a kid, but I seldom found them.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I love when you go all psychologically on me.

I think this idea of influence and how we read with age is a fascinating one and one which should be given more study to determine ways to help people cognitively later in life, to keep them sharp.

One thing that astounds me at fifty something is my patience for classics. I can read books now that would have put me to sleep at age twenty. well, maybe not John Updyke, but still.

Lana Gramlich said...

You're still a cutie pie, MISTER SCIENTIST!

Mr Pineapples said...

hey Charles...betcha - get loads of hassle about your 1970s image.

I pity you

Avery DeBow said...

That age range saw huge extremes in my reading; I went from Little Women and the Secret Garden and Marguerite Henry to devouring everything Stephen King.

Charles Gramlich said...

Stewart, I've noticed a steady growth in my ability to deal with classics myself, at least 'some' classics.

Lana, LOL. I wonder how much longer we'll be on this one? It's still funny, though.

Mr. Pineapples, Oh? Well at least I'm not associated with pineapples in any way, shape, or form. I'm feeling pretty bad for you about now, myself.

Avery, my reading range was big as well, though the primary bent was always toward genre fiction.

laughingwolf said...

yeah, i'm the same, i could pick up the most inane thing, but look at it more closely... and find a pearl

Steve Malley said...

"Some people, for example have low levels of a chemical called Anandamide, which means they are unlikely to be abusers of pot. Some people like stimulants because of their biochemistry, while others like depressants. Some like aggressive music and others less so, because of the interaction between the music and the person's nervous system."

Ah. And I've read that the sheer number of opiate receptors in your brain have a lot to do with how likely you are to engage in addictive behavior of all kinds.

I like this model, as it takes certain hardwired proclivities into account without discounting the role of free will and choice.

Or something.

I shouldn't try to use my brain this early.

Josephine Damian said...

Charles: I listen to Mozart while doing school work - re-wires my noggin' so it's more focused on the task.

BTW, I'm about 1/3 done with my thesis. Still have a long way to go before it's done. Still hoping to finish by 9/1. We'll see.

X. Dell said...

Fascinating. I didn't read Phil Dick until my late-thirties, and instantly loved his work. I guess that would be a biological explanation. I'd also read Heinlein, Bradbury, and Lovecraft at later ages, but they never stuck with me as much.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting post and follow-up discussion. My musical tastes were not formed until I was an adult. I first heard medieval and Renaissance music at a lunchtime chamber music concert my first year of college, and I thought, wow! This is it! Early music is still what I primarily listen to and play.

Since then, as I've been exposed to other kinds of music, I've become a fan of all sorts of things and even (very occasionally) listen to weird modern Classical stuff by people such as John Cage. (It's easy to write to.)

I play several instruments, so that may be why I've continued to add new genres to my favorites.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, it's a good talent to have.

Steve Malley, yes, there's an interaction between experience and biochemistry that's so basic as to kind of make the idea of nature/nuture meaningless. Each affects the other.

Josephine, I've seen research that shows that listening to classical music enhances brain processing. I'm sure it's not the music, per se, but the complexity of the music and it's interaction with brain electrical currents. A priming effect, I imagine.

X-dell, probably some combination of the way your nervous system is structured and the experiences you've had. AT least that would be my guess.

Shauna, musicians process music differently than those of us who only listen but don't play. I'm sure that would have something to do with it.

the walking man said...

if then one were to look at what was read very early on say between 8-18 I would have to say that what was most consistently read was newspapers, Charles.

We had books of every sort , from Encyclopedias (commonly read for pleasure) to Superman and other comics of the day.

The paperbacks in the house were always a varied mix(my mom's place had twelve shelves full when we cleaned it out) as well as the parental figures heavy and consistent use of the nearby branch of the public library, where it was not uncommon for us to ride a bicycle the 1/2 mile to spend a Saturday. But 3 newspapers were available to us in the house every day and each section of those papers made the rounds through seven people. Not all of it got a thorough read to be sure but 90% got at the least a good scan.

Up until I was forty eight I read everything, including two daily papers every day, European Classics and Moderns, same as American works from Paine to Clemons, and the formulaic best sellers of today. Anything printed in English was fair game.

If I were forced to guess what influenced me most I would have to say the journalistic style of newspapers. At least that's what I remember, the ink and smell of a newspaper.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Sometimes we're influenced by where we are now. I read Donald Goines years before I started dealing with crack-heads, thugs, and murderers. Although entertained by his books, I didn't think much about them.

Now I can appreciate what he had written a tad bit more. Yeah, it's not the most literary type of books, but the realism hit home once I met a few his characters in real life.

Josephine Damian said...

There are certain Mozart songs more than others that make my brain peppy.

I saw the research, which is why I got the Mozart CD's. Would not have survived grad school w/o Woolfie!

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I really liked this post. I think that we're drawn to certain material given our nature and we're also a product of what is around. I was already drawn to dark things, but I know I was influenced by the lack of books and my deep desire to find them. When I'm honest with myself, I find that I like all the same things I did as a kid -- old school country, blues, cities, and crazy family situations. Already had the morbid sensibility I do now which has served me well. Loved the pictures from the last post -- hope your mom is doing okay!

Mr Pineapples said...

hey Charles..

So

You're a 1970's Rockabilly Rebel?

That's quite good...it really is

And you like books too?

Wow..that's quite good

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, very interesting. We got a Sunday paper as I remember, and there was a tiny local paper that came out once a week. I did read newspapers daily when I got older, for a lot of my middle years. But books were always my primary reading.

JR, I certainly expanded on my early experiences once I began doing formal study in psychology, and that stuff is often used in my horror fiction, although it's mostly used consciously.

Josephine, I actually do listen to a fair amount of classical. Mozart, Bach, Holst. My mind often seems a bit overly peppy. But in general I'm glad of that.

Michelle, some things just become part of us when we're young. Things we'll never escape, one way or the other.

jason evans said...

Flowers in the Attic influenced my early writing. I think I've successfully eradicated it now, though. Whew.

(Still a great read to me.)

Erik Donald France said...

Love the photos and "the influence thing." The thing I'd wished to have picked up from an early age would be second or third languages. They are really hard to pick up well as an adult.

And yeah, the Stones rock out over the Beatles. I never thought I'd actually see the day when Iggy would displace Bowie, though.

AC/DC forever! But I do like some of the country oldsters, as well. Did loathe Lawrence Welk and always wondered why my grandmother liked his show and also some weirdo T(e)Vangelical. Some bad acid trip or something :->

Virginia Lady said...

Oh I don't know, I didn't find any kind of rap music appealing until I was 40. Now I happen to like quite a bit of it, old and new. I listened to country & top 40 as a teen, but now I tend towards metal, alternative, and rap. Go figure.

But as for books, I have always had an affinity for fantasy, but not so much for written sci-fi. I love sci-fi movies, though and always have. I was about 10 or 11 when Star Wars debuted so that may have influenced me.

I did start reading romance as a young teen and I continue to read them to this day, though the types of books are vastly different.

Lana Gramlich said...

BTW, don't worry much about "Mr Pineapples." He's just some kind of loser chimney sweep, evidently.

BernardL said...

I like your take on the 8 to 18 age group. When I read my first John D McDonald Travis McGee adventure, I was hooked beyond description.

Tom Evans said...

Mr P is just difficult to appreciate at first. Eventually you begin to tolerate him and then finally you notice he has an entertaining way of expressing himself that is essentially honest, if nothing else.

Anyway, thanks for continued reading of my story, it's much appreciated.

I must admit, the influence question is a very good one. In particular I find myself considering it when I think about originality in plot writing. I find I *need* to have inspiration by standing atop the shoulders of giants, but then I hate to simply re-write the work of those masters. Finding the tiny sliver of space between the two is the greatest challenge of a writer. Or so I think.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jason, I remember those books as being everywhere when I was a teenager but I never got around to reading one. Someday I will read the first one for sure.

Erik, I hear you about the languages. I wish the same. At least Spanish.

Virginia lady, I like a little bit of rap here and there, Gangster's paradise. A few other bits and pieces. My son was into it for a while but is into metal now.

Lana, you're a sweety pie.

Bernardl, I know. JDM just was captivating.

Tom Evans, it's definitely a delicate line between imitating and adapting. But none of us are going to be able to be completely and totally original.

Danny Tagalog said...

Hey - hope you get rest at your old dears place. Yes - the 8-18 period holds much import, doesn't it?