About thirteen years ago I wrote and published a novel called The Jewel of the Lotus Flower. On the cover I wrote “A raw, provocative story about coming of age and identity.” It was raw alright, because it didn't have an editor. It also had a lot of stream of consciousness writing in it, because at the time I thought stream of consciousness writing was cool. I have since gone back to this novel to rewrite it. I like the plot, the characters and didn't want them to die obscure because I didn't have the know how to give them proper development. It may also be true that the plot of an obsessive love strikes my fancy nowadays because I am happily married. As Neil Diamond once said, you write love songs when you are getting divorced and break up songs when you are getting married. So I began to revise it just about the time I found the novel A Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood on my sister's shelf. I started to read through it and I realized I needed to have it because it had information I needed to rewrite my story. It was as if I had found a Rosetta Stone, of sorts. I remember clearly the words in my mind, “this one.”
This is not the first time I used Margaret Atwood as an influence. I read Surfacing as a graduate student and immediately felt a kinship with her. She was very good at writing about what goes on in a woman's head with respect to men and relationships and the challenges of being a an artist. She was an expert at integrating the natural world into her work. Her imagery was stunning. I also liked the fact that her novels seemed treacherous. And because I took my self very seriously and took my characters very seriously I felt my life was treacherous. She helped me bring that treachery into my work.
The mechanism I borrowed from Atwood in Cat's Eye is the use of present tense recollection. Cat's Eye oscillates between a younger version of the protagonist and an older version of the protagonist, young Elaine and an old Elaine. Logic tells us the older Elaine is the one that exists presently and the younger Elaines, the child Elaine, the teenage Elaine, and the young woman Elaine existed beforehand; technically they should be written in the past tense. But Atwood scrapped that idea. What if all the Elaines could exist in present tense, what if the older Elaine actually becomes the younger Elaines during the reflective process? This is not merely reflection, but a careful study of the variables of the past, a way of reliving life to get answers about oneself. I wanted this for my character in my novel.
I define artistic influence as a person whose craft you admire; a person who you recognize has insights on subjects you find interesting or better, subjects with which you are intimately familiar and curious. The trick, however, is to know yourself as an artist before you can have the proper artistic influences.
When I was younger I read a lot of Louise Erdrich and Isabelle Allende. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I loved the language in these books, the courage and superhuman qualities of the characters. I tried to emulates these authors, make the characters based on my working class Italian American family into the tragic and dazzling megacharacters of Erdich and Allende novels. Sure it was admiration and appreciation even idolization of these authors that led me into writing, but truth be told, my influences not only mismatched my ability level, but my background as well. I had no idea who I was as a writer and my work was a mere parody of theirs.
In the song The Fly by U2, Bono sings how every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief. We need to eat other people's work to digest our own. But is this cheating? I think Mary Oliver said it best: You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate. And to repeat your imitations until some solid grounding...was achieved and the slight but wonderful difference- that made you and no one else- could assert itself.
After awhile I no longer need to pick up Cat's Eye to be inspired. I can read my own voice from previously written chapters and gain inspiration from that.