My Writing Influences

A selection.

My mother, bon vivant and grammarian. She reveled in beauty and words — the sound of them, their subtle meanings. She had a larger working vocabulary than most people I knew while growing up, and her enunciation was informed by her long-ago training as an opera singer. When she spoke, the words came out of her mouth clear, distinct, richly formed. “Ain’t” was not allowed in our house. My mother made a point of making me aware of the English language, treated it as something precious, a treasure trove of intellectual and emotional expression. Her journals, many now lost or at least missing, are filled with poetic musings, diary entries, shopping lists, reviews of radio shows, consternation about her personal relationships, and whatever else might have come to her mind each morning, a cigarette in her left hand, a pen in her right, and a cup of coffee cooling on the dining room table. Her example led me to start journaling by the time I was 10.


Books. My mother’s book collection included a complete World Book Encyclopedia from the 1970s, which she probably acquired free of charge somewhere. Also Plath, Solzhenitsyn, Dillard, Auel, hundreds of others. In school, we were encouraged to read more than what was required by the curriculum. I took advantage of the Bookworm program and made it a badge of honor to read more books than anyone else. The Anoka County Library, which I frequented many weekends during childhood, was substantially stocked, for a suburban book depository.

Radio. My mother and I listened to a lot of Minnesota Public Radio. The voices of the news and commentary were erudite, the subject matter worthy of an impressionable young mind curious about the world. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, strange and hilarious. Herb Carneal’s Twins game announcing; the language of baseball is full of delightful sounds and rhythms and delicious turns of phrase.

Word play with friends. Throughout my whole life, the English language has been a source of fun and hilarity for me and my friends. Words weren’t just a way to make plans or spread ideas; they were shimmering artifacts unto themselves. We played with words to discover puns, rhymes, dirty jokes, other curiosities. We mined our minds for hidden gems, sown long ago in the ancient soil of collective memory, waiting to be dug up by two ten-year-old boys high on RC Cola in the middle of the night, or a gaggle of twenty-somethings sipping two-for-ones and playing Exquisite Corpse on bar napkins. Idle play was building in our minds vast new networks of neurons devoted to the joy of language. Such recreation continues to this day.

Love letters. This is where my penchant for the lyrical got its exercise. From fifth grade onwards, I have written and received millions of words inspired by young love, infatuation, hormones, wildly confused devotion, and earth-shattering fits of passion. When distance was too great a pain to bear, I tried to build a bridge out of words. Language became an instantaneous transport unit like on Star Trek. Under such pressure to connect, to smash the distance, I reached for words and phrases that I hoped would measure up to the experience of actually being with the love of my life, whomever she might have been that month. Love (or something akin to it) pushed my mind beyond its limits, created broader limits, and shattered those.

Everything else. When the world smacks you in the face with its mass media and its nature and its people, or relieves your existential pain by a backyard bonfire in the summertime with warm friends, it sets fire to a fuse within you. You follow that burning fuse to its logical conclusion: an explosion of words.

What are your influences?

Image credit: Be Deliberate. Quote attributed to Sir Isaac Newton.

2 thoughts on “My Writing Influences”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. It made me think back to what got me interested in language in all its forms.

    Major influences: my mom; Carl Sagan; Isaac Asimov; Collier’s Encyclopedia; the Janesville (WI) Public Library; the Iliad and Odyssey.
    Other influences: my 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Koehn; Kurt Vonnegut; Richard Scarry (yup, the children’s picture-book author); cereal boxes, which I read the backs of repeatedly at breakfast.

    I’ve heard it said many times, and agree with the following: in order to write well, one must read voraciously – you steal ideas, styles, topics, little details, from everywhere indiscriminately. With luck, the great strange blender that is “your mind” will allow you to write something that is identifiably your own.

    Mathematics types call this requirement “necessary but not sufficient”, though. I was a great reader, but don’t know that I write particularly well. I’m still an aspirant. But hopefully, someday….

    1. Thanks for this! I’ve been secretly reading your blog, by the way. It’s good stuff. The algebra “controversy” is so stupid. A propos, math has always been one of my favorite subjects. It’s another writing influence of mine, in fact. For example, the calculus concept of the asymptote illustrates how, in the real world, things are never quite what they are — you can spend a literal eternity getting closer and closer to an ideal line, but never touching it.

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