Tall, about 6 foot 3 inches, he towered over display tables where he flipped books over casually to check out back covers and author bios. Handsome with dark, curly hair that looped over his large ears, the young man asked, “Are you the publisher or one of the editors?”
“Neither,” said the middle-aged woman who was smartly dressed in an oversized white shirt with high collar. “I’m a sales representative. Which titles are you interested in?”
“None of them,” he said, gently pushing me out of the way in order to face the sales rep more directly. “I’m looking for a publisher for my novel. I don’t want to buy anything.”
“You would have a better idea of what our publisher is looking for if you check out some of our books.” The woman held up a novel.
“No. I don’t want my writing to be influenced in any way. Just give him—the publisher—my information.” The young man set his card on the busy display table and walked away. He had other business cards to distribute as widely as possible in the large space. As he disappeared into the crowd, the sales rep shook her graying head and smiled. “Ah, to be young, arrogant, and ignorant,” she said quietly to no one in particular.
Attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conferences for a number of years, I have seen many young people with the attitude of that young man who did not want his writing to be “influenced in any way.”
Admittedly, it is not easy to find a publisher for creative writers in any genre, but poetry and literary novels are particularly hard to “sell” to independent publishers and impossible to sell to larger publishers without an agent. I don’t want to be too hard on that young writer whose egotism or hubris was more likely a mask for insecurities, but I do want to address the importance of influence in writing.
Everything we read, every person we meet, every experience we have influences us to varying degrees which means our writing will inevitably be influenced by myriad external forces. That is a positive aspect of living, allowing us to grow, develop, and innovate. Originality is born from that disordered caldron.
In his essay on writing and criticism “Tradition and the Individual Talent” from The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot wrote, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism…what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.”
Eliot, it is well known, alluded to numerous works and authors who came before him, heavily indebted to Dante, the Greeks, and contemporaries such as Ezra Pound. Yet Eliot’s poetry is brilliantly original at the same time it is allusive.
While a few young writers may fear inadvertently plagiarizing another’s work, consciousness of the act should be enough to avoid it. Most plagiarism arises out of direct intent, not subconscious theft.
If I could have a few minutes to talk with that young writer I stood beside at the AWP conference, I would tell him, “Read voraciously and well. Practice various styles of other writers before coming to your own. Be unafraid of attributions and citations in your work and trust—over time—your transformation as a writer will reveal your own style and diction choices. Buy one of those other poets’ or novelists’ books at the display tables. Read, discover others, consider. And by all means, be influenced.