Influences

What writers or books have most impacted you as a person?   Literature can have profound influence on who we are, what we do for a living, how we think or what we care about.  For example, a survey conducted several years ago by the American Bar Association asked its members what made them decide to be a lawyer.  Overwhelmingly, ABA attorneys cited the character of Atticus Finch from Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird for inspiring them to pursue the law. Of course the fact that Gregory Peck played Atticus in the film version might have played a role in the decision too!

For writers, the work of fellow authors, particularly those we encounter when we are first beginning our literary careers can literally shape not only how we write, but what we write about.

To get the discussion started, we asked some of our  editors and contributors to share insights into the writers who most influenced their literary aspirations and why.  We encourage all our readers to join in the discussion as well using the comments form below and participate in all our Talkback/Discussions on Community Forum.

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3 thoughts on “Influences

  1. This comment comes from Christabel Choi, Class of 1990:
    Pulling one influential writer out of my life would be like picking the best word out of a sentence. Shall I start with Mom, who forced me into writing one whole sentence a day in my journal –wittingly starting a lifelong addiction to producing prose? Or shall I go several lifetimes further to college, where a Russian poet with piercing commentary soaked us in language until every step of running to class was a line from great literature? Or is today more relevant, when the jumble of books on my nightstand ranges from sacred texts to the latest teen read to Dr. Seuss to (no, not the one under the nightstand that I don’t want the kids to find…) to some recent theory of education or society, to a classic I should have read long ago and am somehow surprised to find I really enjoy? Unfortunately, I can’t pull a name out of the bag or off the bookshelf without exclaiming how the author next to it was influential, too. And this question will keep resurfacing in my mind, inevitably ending up as entries in that lifelong journal…

  2. My most profound influences came when I was a child. I decided I wanted to be a writer like Louisa May Alcott’s Jo, and started scribbling when I was in the third grade (much encouraged, I must add, by my wonderful Miss Rodgers’ suggestion that I might be a writer one day). Alcott’s nineteenth-century prose taught me about the nuances of language in ways that more contemporary writers probably couldn’t have, but she wrote so movingly about things that were important to an eight-year-old — family, friends, hopes and aspirations, how to be a person in the world — that her stories had an immediacy that spoke directly to my heart. Though my grandfather had died when I was tiny, I consider Beth’s dying in Little Women to have been my first real experience of death. I had to put the book away for a long time after I read that part, but eventually I picked it up again and, like Jo, persevered. And now that I think of it, the fact that both Alcott and Jo were female must have sparked the connection in the first place.

    My other influence will seem trite, especially since several Supreme Court Justices have claimed it as an inspiration, but I have to cite the Nancy Drew mysteries by “Carolyn Keene.” Of course now we know that Carolyn was the pen name of the several writers who authored the series over the years, but we didn’t know that back then, and I just, well, inhaled as many of those books as I could. If you asked me now, I couldn’t describe much about the prose style, but I think that there was a spareness to it that I liked. (Perhaps the Carolyns had read Hemingway?) Years later, I read that one of the most prolific of the Carolyns was a newspaper reporter who wrote a column well into her nineties. I was a reporter myself at that time, and I made a wish that I’d be around to write a column at that age.

  3. The writers I read in my late teens and twenties have most influenced my work, and most of them I discovered, not in college or graduate school, but on my own. The writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Milan Kundera, Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, and Amy Tan have all profoundly shaped me as a writer. But the author who has influenced me most is clearly novelist, journalist and personal essayist Joan Didion. In her essay collections such as The White Album and Slouching into Bethelhem, Didion expressed so many of the feelings I had–despair, phobias, ambition, the longing for something more, the quest to make sense of the world around her–that reading her often felt as though I was having a conversation with myself. And her novels, particularly Democracy and Play it As It Lays, were among the first I ever read which involved strong, contemporary female protagonists who insisted on living life on their own terms, even if doing so ultimately brought them sorrow or loss.

    Yet it is the way Didion writes that has transformed me the most. First developed by Hemingway, but refined by Didion, the iceberg theory of writing is predicated on the fact that only a very small portion of an iceberg is actually visible: three quarters of a iceberg lies beneath the watery depths. What Didion achieves is based not on the words that appear on the page, but by what she deliberately leaves out out. Tension and conflict are built on what lies beneath the surface of the characters’ dialogue and observations. She gives the reader just enough of the conversation, the image, the scene, that what’s not said makes me shiver with recognition or fear. — Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85, Author of This is How I Speak: A Memoir in Diary Form

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