Writing Influences

Who influenced me and made me write in the way that I do?

It’s a question I’ve thought about quite a bit although I hadn’t really ever intended posting about it. Then my pal Rachel Fox did a Fine Post on the writers who have influenced her and she asked me the question directly. (I see that Poetikat has posted on this too). So that all gave me an excuse to answer, hopefully without sounding too full of myself.

I started to read a lot and to write a little when I was really young and I believe that the seeds of the way I scribble were planted very early and have not changed an awful lot since. That’s why the five influences I’m about to suggest will not seem overly highbrow or intellectual.

I could bluff you with more challenging fare if I felt like it, trust me, but that's not the point.

These five names represent an honest attempt to think back at who coloured my style of writing and why.

In approximate chronological order, here goes:

James Thurber: As with most things, I am not an authority on James Thurber. He turned up in a English Class textbook - “The Night The Ghost Got In”, I think – and shortly after that, I saw two collections of his work in the local book shop and I bought them. Most of the short pieces were from his New Yorker writings. I was amazed to find that a writer could be so accessible, smart and yet still funny. I wanted to learn to do that.

James Herriot: Yes, the ‘Vet’ from 'All Creatures Great and Small'. Years before any mention of a TV series, I was attracted to James Herriot’s books on account of the nice cartoons on the covers (remember I was very young). Inside the covers lay a wealth of well-told stories from the man’s professional life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in the Thirties. I always remember a review on the back of one of the books said something like, “he can tell a good story against himself.” This sentence became embedded in the part of my heart reserved for writing.

Kevin Marron: Sadly, a great many of you won’t know who Kevin Marron was. Kevin was the editor of The Sunday World newspaper in Ireland in the Seventies and early Eighties. He kept a page in that paper called ‘A Sort of TV Column’ in which he reviewed the week’s television and had fun with everything else that came to his mind. His page was always adorned by a nubile young lady in a bikini and I think my parents thought my interest in the page was another sign of my advancing adolescence (along with the acne and the moods). The girls were certainly nice but Kevin was the main event - he was a brilliant writer. He was readable, smart, finger-on-the-pulse and funny – very funny. In 1984, when still a young man, Kevin Marron flew to France on the annual Beaujolais Nouveau run and tragically died in the ensuing plane crash. You made me want to write as good as you did Kevin. Maybe someday…

Stephen King: It seems to be cool to knock Stephen King but I will always defend him with some passion. I have read pretty much every word he has ever published and I think he is a sharp, crystal clean writer with colossal story–telling ability. I can criticise him too. Here is my one-sentence-King-crit: His 'small' books are much better than his 'big' ones. People think King is some kind of pulp writer because a) he writes in the horror genre and b) he is prolific but Stephen will still be around in a century’s time and will be taught in all the best schools. He writes about his own pain with great insight, be it alcoholism in 'The Shining' or traumatic life shattering injury in 'Duma Key'. He is graphic, visual and searing and he is, to my knowledge, the first writer to describe the taste of blood as ‘copper’. I remember as a teen grabbing his books off the shelves on the day they were published – books like ‘Christine’ and ‘Cujo’ spoke directly to me as a young guy. I wanted to be able to tell a story and grab the reader by the scruff of the neck like he could. Still tryin’…

David Mamet: It took me quite a while to discover that I’m better at writing drama than I am at writing anything else. Nobody beats Mamet for Drama. He pares everything down to the absolute quick. There is no flab, no fat. Read 'American Buffalo', see ‘Oleanna’, catch the movies ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ or even ‘The Untouchables’. Mamet rules. He taught me that brevity is the soul of wit (Polonius who?) and he is still teaching it to me. Nobody is better at writing about the state of being a man. I don’t always get what he writes but it always, always, gets me.

I could list 25 writers, sure I could. But with these five, I believe that I can see their footprints in the words I write. I don’t think I’m as good as them or even as good as anybody else, I just think they - all five - have shaped me a little. And that’s the point of this post.

Back in 1978, my English teacher wrote on the bottom of my essay that I had a 'nice, chatty style' and that I should try to hold onto that. She wasn't a writer but, with that passing comment, she influenced me too.


Kat Mortensen said...

You've managed to hone yours down to 5 and I'm pushing for 50!

I should have put King on my list, but so many of his books, though thrilling were met by me with mixed feeling - I couldn't get through "Christine" for some reason. The big name ones I do love and I CAN see his style in some of your own.

Herriot - My dad bought a collection and I read a few of them too, but I'll be honest, it was the visual experience on television that I found most captivating.

Mamet - I have not read, although I've seen a number of films directed by him. Do you know "House of Games"?

I'm sure I read some Thurber as a kid - and I loved his drawings.

Coincidentally, we had a great t.v. writer here in Toronto and he just so happened to be Irish. His name is John Doyle and I always looked forward to his Saturday write ups about what films and programs were up and coming for the week. He managed to be both witty and profound on a regular basis.
I'll dig up some Marrion and have a read myself.

You're right about teachers as well. I had a few who urged me on to write. I just wish I hadn't waited so bloody long to get cracking!


Anonymous said...

That English teacher who said you had a 'nice, chatty style' was spot-on. That to me is what makes your writing so interesting to read.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've just finished a post about my relationship with reading and it really doesn't come alive until I became a teenager. I remember cycling to the library every weekend as a kid and yet virtually none of the books have stuck with me. I remember reading Journey to the Centre of the Earth and having a crack at War and Peace while still at primary school and now I think about it I did read Lord of the Flies back them but I can't pretend any of these were great influences, they're just the ones I remember.

Rachel Fox said...

Interesting set of 5. I presume you have read King's book about writing (title?). It's really good...I think about the bits about writing space and so on quite a lot.

Mamet is a clever bugger (sometimes almost too clever for the readers/audience...his knots tie into more knots!) but I loved 'House of Games' when I was a student (ie 20 years ago!). It was my favourite film for ages.

As for you...'nice, chatty style'...well, yes but I think that's underplaying you a little. I think you are that fairly rare thing - a natural writer and storyteller. People want to read what you write...you don't have to make them or con them or bribe them...and I think (if you really set your mind on it) you could be any kind of writer you wanted to be. So there!

Matthew S. Urdan said...

Nice post. Here are my influences:

1. E.B. White--I can probably recite both Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan from Memory.
2. Stephen R. Donaldson--No one makes the land come alive, pun intended, more so than Donaldson.
3. Pat Conroy--Lords of Discipline/Prince of Tides--building characters out of confining restraints and subsequent explosion through emotional barriers.
4. Joyce Carol Oates--building characters out life's situations;
and to prove you're never too old to learn,
5. Stephenie Meyer--The Twilight series is as atmospheric, if not more so than David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars.

Kat Mortensen said...

Rachel - You've hit the nail on the head; Ken I venture to say you're a true seanachie (sp?).


Rachel Fox said...

If only there were a job that involved (only) hitting nails on heads...then I might be employable!

Cupcake said...

Ken, Thank you so much for taking a moment to visit my blog and to leave a comment. I truly admire your writing and your thoughts on life. You do a much more eloquent job of writing it down.
It seems that we are kindred souls about music and the place it holds in my heart. If you are so inclined to read, I think this blog entry I wrote in 2007 sums up the very core of music in my life

I've added you as a blog link on my home page. I hope this is okay.

Ken Armstrong said...

Kat: King is at his best in the small books with few characters. 'Misery' shines and 'The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon' is a little gem. The James Herriot adaptations for TV were very well done but I felt everybody had been let in on a little secret of mine. 'House of Games' is great - best film adaptation of one of his plays is undoubtedly 'Glengarry Glen Ross' a crude testosterone-charged must-see movie. I'm not sure how much of Kevin Marron's writing remains now... shame, I remember him so very fondly.

Lyndi: Thank. :) I kinda think she was right too, probably why I've played up to that notion ever since.

Jim: I read 'Papillon' in primary school and shocked a few people in doing it. :)

Rachel: Yes, 'On Writing' is a fine book on the subject and I think it has won Stephen King some new fans. I agree with you about Mamet, he can be very smarty-patarty but his dialogue and editing allows me to forgive everything. Thank you for the kind words which mean a lot coming from you, really. :)

Matt: I bought Lord Foul's Bane for my brother one Christmas back around when it first appeared, we both fell head-over-heels for the books. (I'm doing a quick VSE, as I type). Your choices are great - Conroy is a big bold writer (I'd put Wally Lamb up there with him) and 'Snow Falling on Cedars' is a wonderful book. Clever Dude. :)

Poetikat: You'd have to hear me tell 'em to finalise the 'Seanachie' compliment. Although, yup, I think I can spin an auld take that way too. :)

Rachel: Now I see you on the rafters of a roof, pounding, while the rest of the good Amish people set about laying lunch on the long trestle tables... the rest is censored. :)

Ken Armstrong said...

Cupcake: Thanks, I like the post you linked to very much. I found your post today (you know the one) and it made me feel very pleased to know that a piece of writing can sometimes reach someone in this way. Thanks again for taking the trouble. :)

Rachel Fox said...

That's not such a bad idea. At least if I lived with the Amish I wouldn't have to worry about being crap for not driving! Bring back the horse and cart...

Susan at Stony River said...

"I don't always get what he writes but it always always gets me."

Quite a mix of folks here; Kevin Marron was new to me but I salute the way he died. We do our own (less classy) annual booze pilgrimmage to France each year and that's the way to go, baby.

Agreed on King: I discovered him through Eyes of the Dragon which I loved as a young teenager. I enjoy his writing but his really horrible horror scares the crap out of me. I don't pay money to be scared, and it's awful hard to read a book through your fingers, so...

Before the teenage years I was a pony-loving girl so looooved James Herriot and his stories. His settings and his easy-going way of letting the story tell itself probably influenced me too.

You've got me in the mood now to rediscover Thurber and Mamet, because it's been a long while now.

Great list, Ken! I might join you sometime this week and list a half-dozen or so of my own, but it takes thinking about, doesn't it? It might be easier to list the writers I try NOT to be like! LOL

Susan at Stony River said...

I've tried three times to leave a comment but I'm not getting my 'your comment has been saved' message on the page. If you're reading this thinking, "oh not ANOTHER one", sorry, I'm not trying to annoy you! Blogger's been doing my head in recently. But TELL me a long one came through? (at least one?)

Kat Mortensen said...

Ken - I'd love to hear you tell 'em. You can always podcast you know.


Matthew S. Urdan said...


What is VSE?

And, you DO know that "Head-Over-Heels" is an ABBA song, right? :)

Ken Armstrong said...

Rachel: I didn't take your horse and cart - less of the accusatory tone please! :)

Susan: (Yup, I liked that too) :)

Something cool about saluting the way someone dies, hmmm, maybe someone will salute the way I die, asleep in bed, 96, surrounded by his books and films.

Do. Do a list. Do.

Susan: Yes, all your lovely comments are really going to annoy me. Duh. :)

Kat: Hmmm, podcast had the same ring as spacewalk to me. :)

Matt: VSE is the Visual Surveillance of Extremities which Thomas Convenant the Unbeliever used to fall back on in times of trouble. It's all coming back now, isn't it? :)

Matthew S. Urdan said...

"Yes, it's all coming back, coming back to me now..."--Celine Dion

hope said...

I use to work with a guy who knew I loved King's work. But when he found out "Cujo" upset me [aw come on, dogs eating kids!] he forbade me to buy any more King books. Hey, he was a police officer but that wasn't why...he bought all of King's books. He'd bring me the new one when he finished. If he skipped, he'd say, "Pet Semetary is not for you." :)

The "biggest" story I read was the "Dark Tower" series. It was 7 volumes and I was ready to strangle the man because it took him YEARS to complete. But it was worth it...if only to hear him poke fun at himself as a character who is "some writer named Stephen King who almost got himself killed walking down the road."

Nice list.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hope: I remember being at a party in an apartment in Kensington, London, in or around 1984. I decided to stay the night in an armchair and, at about three am, I went in search of something to read. I found 'Pet Sematery'.

I sat up all night reading and I remember it well. It is a visceral terrifying book which veers into places I didn't think writers were allowed to go. I loved it - except for the ending which I still believe to be deeply flawed.