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Scott Lax Blog

On Influence in Writing

Finn being thoughtful (at nearly four months in the world)
Lydia and I were talking this morning about how much a writer should allow herself or himself to be influenced by other writers. We both agreed: learning from and being influenced by a writer (or other artists) is fine and good. Imitating, on the other hand – notsomuch, as they say nowadays.

As a writer, I'm influenced by a variety of artists, and they widely vary. Here's a sampling: poets Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman for their cultural sensibilities and lyricism; French film director Francois Truffaut for his love of story-telling about the elegance and pain of everyday life and love; F. Scott Fitzgerald for his ability to write astonishingly beautiful sentences that happened to exist within great plots; my dad, for his ability to write succinct business letters, which was my first important lesson in writing after college (he took a two-pager and showed me how to edit it down to a couple of paragraphs); E.B. White, for his elegant simplicity and brevity in nonfiction essays; Dorothy Parker for her wit, which was layered with the understanding that life isn't fair, but that you can be funny anyway; Ernest Hemingway for his often short, gorgeous, utterly misunderstood sentences (misunderstood because he was a much better writer, and more complicated, than the simplistic view of him as a writer of silly, tough prose); James Baldwin for his searing portrayal of post-war America (I would put John Cheever in that category); Tim O'Brien for his wondrous ability to weave realism and fiction in a brutal yet tender way. And drummers Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Uriel of The Funk Brothers (drummer for many Motown hits) for the execution of controlled, powerful rhythmic excellence and varying dynamics.

Whew. And there are others, but if you got through those, maybe you want to take a break and make your own list.

So to put a finer point on this subject: Don't imitate. Be inspired. Be influenced. But find your own voice. How do you do that? I'll write more about that in coming months, but for now, here a bit of advice:

Be honest. Don't ever hide behind experimental or clever technique. Allow the story and the language to be the star of your writing, but not yourself. Creative writing is not an advertisement for you as a woman or man. It's an art form. Read More 

Knowing that the Effort is Real

When it comes to teaching, I like what James Baldwin said: "If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real."

That's all I try to do in my teaching: let students know that their effort is real. Sometimes they realize they don't want to make the effort. That's okay, too.

Most of a student's success comes because he or she has some talent, works hard, stays humble, takes some advice and throws out the rest. Creative writing teachers should guide their students' efforts; they should helping students find their stories, and find their voices in order to translate and shape those stories into the written form.  Read More