June 29, 2011, by Jon McGregor
‘Influence and Creative Writing’, a discussion
In his introductory remarks to this discussion (at Worlds 11; see below), Professor Jon Cook noted that Harold Bloom’s famous book on the anxiety of influence should have been called the inevitability of influence. He talked about how, when we write – or, rather, when we publish – we are ‘drawn into a network of comparison… your work being compared to others.. being sifted for influence.. judgment.. comparison’. He mentioned that TS Eliot framed this positively, as ’ working within a tradition’. He also offered, with a smile, that in this sense the translator is in fact the exemplary writer; since they work with nothing but influence.
The poet CK Williams then opened the session by talking about influence in relation to his own work, referring to ‘the invading, enlarging, inhabiting procedure of reading poetry,’ and stating that he has spent his life on a quest for influences. ‘I judge poems by whether they can reach inside me and influence me,’ he said; ‘my mind has been shaped by – created by - reading poetry.’ In his career as ‘a lifelong apprentice’, he noted, he has always come to poems with an ‘expectation that what will be changed is my imaginative capacity.’
In the discussion which followed, Rebecca Swift referred to ‘some great writers who would have been lesser if they’d been steeped in tradition’, pointing out that influence is not always useful and citing Emily Dickinson as an example.
Following up, Linor Goralik talked about ‘the cultural pressure to measure the effect of other texts on our own work.’
Xu Xi made the point that we can learn a lot from our dislike and reaction against a particular writer or piece of writing: ‘it’s too easy to say why you ‘love’ some writer’, she said; ‘it’s harder and more interesting to understand something about your distaste.’
Joyelle McSweeney then raised the issue of the ‘tradition’ concept of influence being one based on patrilineage – the gifts and languages of the forefathers being inherited by the next generation – and that this is a problematic model. She talked about finding the notion of always having to move forward in literature very limiting, and proposed a ‘viral’ model of influence, where ideas are exchanged and mutated and in a constant state of movement. (Read a transcript of her contribution here.)
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