Under the Influence
By Amy Groening
When I was 11 years old, I decided I was going to read the biggest, most impressive book I could find in the school library. My aspirations weren’t exactly honourable. I was a weird, awkward kid without many claims to fame, but one thing that I had a reputation for in 6th grade was being a great reader—until this new girl showed up at school nose-deep in The Fellowship of the Ring and smashed my 300-page-novel-reading-reputation to smitherines. So I zoomed through the library shelves without much concern of genre, subject matter, or skill level, and came up with a veritable brick of a book, a whopping 1024-page saga, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Really I’m lucky Mitchell produced such an epic, or else I could easily have ended up trying to convince the class I was reading a Biology textbook “just for fun”. And while I wasn’t reading Gone with the Wind “just for fun” either, so much as “just to show off”, it ended up having a surprising and in some ways questionable amount of influence on my life. Everything I know about the Civil War I learned from Gone with the Wind, for instance (a rather dubious achievement), and while I took Scarlett O’Hara’s garish attempts at social ladder climbing with more than a few grains of salt, it took a while for me to shake the idea that the only thing you really need to have your way is a pretty face, a haughty attitude and some curtains.
It was a strange episode in my life, my month with Gone with the Wind. It thoroughly engrossed me, but it did not lead to anything notable (or so I thought). It didn’t inspire me to go on a historical romance kick. I had no interest in reading more books about southern belles, and as far as I was concerned I knew everything there was to know about the Civil War and didn’t need to read any more about that, either. I did not fashion myself a dress from my bedroom curtains and go on a search for my own Rhett Butler and I did not write a haughty, dark-haired heroine into the novel I was working on at the time. Any other book that had a great, engrossing effect on me usually lead somewhere, whether it was a penchant to grow my hair out long enough for me to sit on and get tin cups for Christmas (Little House on the Prairie ), continuously make (and break) cardboard swords (The Hero and the Crown ), spend way too much time trying to go through the backs of cupboards (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), write books that always centered around a strong female character and a mythical beast (any Tamora Pierce novel), but Gone with the Wind seemed like a one-off, and I soon forgot it had ever absorbed so much of my life.
Thirteen years later, during a Creative Writing class, Gone with the Wind resurfaced in my memory. Our professor had asked us to each think of a book we enjoyed as a child and then tell the class about it. I hadn’t thought about the book in years, but suddenly it jumped to the forefront, and off I went with the self-deprecating story of my quantity-not-quality attempt to achieve bibliophilic fame with this epic.
“That makes sense,” my professor said. “Your writing always has a romantic feel to it.”
A romantic tilt to my writing? ¬_What?_ I was floored. I would call my writing many things but “romantic” wasn’t one of them. I had only read two romance novels in my entire life, and while I enjoyed both of them I didn’t aspire to write like either of them. It hadn’t occurred to me that they’d had any sort of effect on my life. If you asked me who my influences are, I would point to C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman—fantasy writing, quirky and creative stories with deeper messages buried beneath their allegorically magical exteriors; and then of course the Bible, because who isn’t? But Gone with the Wind? It never would have occurred to me. And yet, after my professor had pointed it out, I looked back through my writing pieces and realized that I did indeed have a romantic bent to my writing.
Sometimes our influences come from the places we least expect them to, and the experiences we downplay the most. Realizing what effect Margaret Mitchell’s writing had on me was eye-opening and a bit embarrassing. Here I was taking queues from a genre I was more likely to scoff at than actually pick up and read, like a child pretending not to belong to its more embarrassing family members. Was I really in such deep self-denial that I hadn’t even noticed I was writing romances? What was I afraid of, anyway? And were there other unexpected influences I had shoved at the back of my closet? Did every book I cast aside take root in my creative mind, coming up like dandelions in my vegetable-patch of compositions?
Short answer: yes. I could make a case for every single book I’ve read being a notable influencer in my writing. After my initial shock (Ann M. Martin is an influence? Really?) I realized that this is a) 100% normal—everyone is inspired by what they read, whether they like it or not; and b) a good thing to know about myself.
As it is wisdom to know thyself, I now turn this opportunity for literary discovery over to you, dear reader: what unexpected influences have come up in your own writing, and how? And, just as importantly: how does knowing who your influences are affect your writing?
About this Contributor:
Amy Groening is a project manager at Word Alive Press. She is a passionate storyteller with experience in blogging, newspaper reportage, and creative writing. She holds an Honours degree in English Literature and is happy to be working in an industry where she can see other writers’ dreams come to life. She enjoys many creative pursuits, including sewing, sculpture and painting, and spends an embarrassingly large amount of time at home taking photos of her cat committing random acts of feline crime.