I read a new book and feel, in the following days, how its author’s chosen style, their playfulness or their terseness, their pathos or their whimsy, in short, the flavor of their prose, invades my own, like rainwater flooding a woodland. I select characters, develop narratives, construct sentences, play with words the way they do, conscious all the while of my behavior, which feels as obvious as ingratiation, as cheap as bad forgery, and as profane as body snatching. It’s unsettling to observe how profoundly my literary diet can express itself through my writing, how plain my influences are, mostly because this tendency—to imitate—is not particularly flattering to my ego, which craves originality, and which is continually rooting through the messy drawers of my mind in an effort to dig out pure, new gems, hitherto undiscovered and unplundered by any other.
I vary my reading diet of influences in an attempt to strike gold, the way a sorcerer might dump ingredients of a varied nature into a cauldron in the expectation of unexpected magic. There’s always a chance—a strong likelihood, really—that all this diversification results in nothing but green, gray, brownish gruel. A crude flurry of brushstrokes that imitate, in their ardent but misplaced agitation, a million different styles, but fail to synthesize from these disparate elements anything of significance. A keen reader with similar tastes in books could undoubtedly pick out what motivates me as a writer, and I’ve had that happen before. Once, many years ago, a friend told me, sincerely and with no contempt, that they could see clearly what influences we shared. I felt then a satisfying bolt of recognition, and something else—shame?—at failing at authentic originality.
Of course, I’ve heard the rebuttal before, too: “There’s nothing truly original.” Everything in increments. Everything an accretion of prior secretions. Everything built on the legacies of others. A person’s talent is nothing but an aggregate of influences, impressions, and outside ideas, received and cultivated during formative periods. But that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from chasing, through the mazes of the mundane, that flash of flesh that is different, and weird, and raw, unprocessed and unfiltered, but immediately recognizable nonetheless, by its power to demand attention, and interrogate convention, and spit on readily-available assumptions. But there’s also the fact that originality is not always celebrated nor rewarded (you could argue that to fulfill the basic definition, it must eschew both of these, to an extent). Originality requires a creator to run the risk of being too edgy, too weird, too unreadable, in short, to expose their vulnerabilities to a critical public in the hope of obtaining that most fragile of currencies: kinship, acceptance. The alternative is safer by far: to stay pleasant, readable, anodyne.
But I won’t deny that it’s more motivational than anything else to stumble across an author and know, from the first page, that I am about to experience something new, something weird, something summarily rejected by a conventional publisher and then strewn online, like lined pages chucked from a window onto the street below. Something that they wrote for themselves, as an encapsulation of what makes them tick, but that, magically, happens to resonate with me.
I feel then that desire: To cross unknown lands, to scale their mountains, to breathe deeply at their peaks. To predict their weather by way of their cloud patterns, to sight the paths of their swooping birds, to build small, private fires in their luminous valleys in the darkest hours of the night, and to know the explorable world extends farther than you could ever hope to travel, and to feel not forlorn at the limits of your own body and and its capacity to know, but overjoyed that such a place, such a time, embalmed in language, could live alongside you, and could be carried in your heart like a talisman of a faith not yet forgotten.