Before I went to Block Island I was given some advice by a very wise man:
1. Don’t drink. He told me, “I did a winter-beach-writing thing too and you lose track of time, so I’d pour myself a scotch at 3 p.m., it’s dark out after all, and then would wake up foggy the next day. So don’t drink.”
2. Don’t bring any books by authors you admire or want to emulate. Leave those at home.
I was fascinated by this and obeyed him faithfully on both counts (well, except for the notorious Bloody Mary day). The books I brought to Block Island were things that had been on my shelf for eons, waiting for me to pick up, waiting for me to want to read again, and none of them were by the authors that make me ache with envy. The Rockefeller bio was safe. Evelyn Waugh was safe. Even if I wanted to write like him, I flat out couldn’t. The “interview-length books” with Roman Polanski and Andrei Tarkovsky were safe. And my poetry book was safe. When I was packing up my books for the trip, I hesitated over Annie Proulx’s latest short story collection. I’ve been dying to read it, but the pull to write like her, to capture her totally original stylings, is too strong. I left her behind.
It was awesome advice. My reading out there was for pleasure only, an escape, not to mention building up my reading-muscles again. As I turned the pages, I thought to myself, “Look at me! Reading again!”
But the voices I encountered didn’t clamor through my head, begging me to imitate them, to try to be like them.
William Carlos Williams has said that he could not read T.S. Eliot because the influence on him was too strong, and if he spent any time with Eliot whatsoever, he would have no voice left to speak of. The pull to imitate was so strong. Hart Crane said the same thing about Eliot, in letter after letter. Here’s just one example:
I have been facing him [T.S. Eliot] for four years – and while I havenât discovered a weak spot yet in his armour, – I flatter myself a little lately that I have discovered a safe tangent to strike which, if I can possibly explain the position, – goes through him toward a different goal. You see it is such a fearful temptation to imitate him that at times I have been almost distractedâ¦ In his own realm Eliot presents us with an absolute impasse, yet oddly enough, he can be utilized to lead us to, intelligently point to, other positions and âpastures newâ. Having absorbed him enough, we can trust ourselves as never before, in the air or on the sea.
Certain writers act as a magnet. The only way to deal with them is to resist the pull. Every contemporary Irish writer has SOME opinion of James Joyce, good, bad, or indifferent, it doesn’t matter. Joyce is the magnet, and you must resist. Resist the impulse to imitate, naturally, but also, there are certain writers who can make you lose confidence in yourself.
It’s different for each writer. Annie Proulx, Joan Didion, Michael Chabon and Lorrie Moore make me lose confidence in myself (and these are just the contemporary ones). I also have Lorrie Moore’s long-awaited new book on the shelf, but since I am working so hard on my own writing right now, I think I need to stay away from her for a bit. Know your influences, certainly, and acknowledge them, but it is also important to have the self-knowledge to wrestle with those demons/angels (as Hart Crane so obviously did).
Or, and just to carry on the chain, Tennessee Williams was so influenced by Hart Crane (and others, but Hart Crane mainly) that he had to eventually separate himself, openly, and you can see, in play after play, he either starts with an epigraph from Crane, or outright dedicates it to Crane. A way to say: “This over there is YOU. I acknowledge your power, and I acknowledge your influence. So I dedicate to YOU to keep you in your proper place. NOT in my prose itself.”
All of this is to say, Maud Newton has a great piece up about intimidation, how certain writers (again, it’s different for everyone) have the power to SILENCE you. To make you zip it. Forever.
To carry on the chain yet again, T.S. Eliot was so haunted by James Joyce and Ulysses that he never quite recovered his balance. His “Waste Land” was published in 1922, same year as Ulysses, and while I don’t think Joyce ever gave T.S. Eliot a second thought (Joyce didn’t feel he had any rivals), Eliot kept circling back … and back … and back … to Joyce, in his writings. What WAS it Joyce had done? You can feel the unbalancing effect it had on so many writers at that time. It takes a strong ego to feel like whatever you are working on has value, even if it is not THAT.
Great quote from Joan Didion about the writer who silences her. I’m with Maud. Hard to imagine the great Didion being silenced by anyone, but it’s nice to know it happens to everyone.