Influence vs. Copying

Hey friends. I hope you’ll check out my new flash fiction piece, “Riding in Cars with Girls,” published with the amazing new literary magazine Pretty Owl Poetry. Below is an excerpt:

“She talks about deer carcasses and misquotes Janis Joplin lyrics. She expounds on how “Down on Me” is about oral sex. She drives us into towns with names like Barren, Wyoming and Tombstone, New Mexico, winds off into their back roads, places a wet finger on my throat, beckons me to some rock formation where she says she can really feel the vibration, the electric energy…”

If you want to read the full story (and the work of other stellar writers), please click here.

OK, without further ado…

“You know who this reminds me of?” I was at a restaurant with some friends and I had just shared a poem of mine. “Bukowski.”

Of course I tried to play it cool, but inwardly I cringed just a bit. Yes, Charles Bukowski was one of the finest poets (and novelists) around, and I do admire his simple yet cutting style and hard edge, but my friend essentially told me that my writing was derivative.

Naturally, all writers have their influences. Mine are Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Shirley Jackson. I admire the uncomfortable undertones juxtaposed with their intense realism. Truthfully, I’d love to one day be mentioned among those names as one of the masters of American literature…but I’d hate for someone to say that I was aping any of those writers.

Writers have their influences; these influences will rub off on your writing. I’m not a fan of flowery prose, so I doubt anyone will think of Virginia Woolf or Gabriel Garcia Marquez when they read my writing, but in the ordinary situations I place my characters in and my desire to dig to the underbelly of ordinary life, people can definitely see what tradition I am following in.

The reality is that all writers are products of their influences, and not just their literary influences, but their friends, their families, their culture, their class, their gender, their race, their successes, their failures. A writer’s work will reflect who a writer is (though of course, you aren’t your characters). While influences are important, and some may claim that your work reminds them of a favorite author, as long as you don’t deliberately set out to write in their style or copy their themes, try not to take offense to the inevitable comparisons. We are all part of a tradition. Embrace it.

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