Opposites Attract: Balancing Vastly Different Writing Impulses

My two favorite living writers are Pat Conroy and Jo Ann Beard. For a while, this presented a problem, insofar as my writing life was concerned. 

Original image credit: bookcrossing.com
Original image credit: bookcrossing.com

Over our writing careers, we encounter authors and styles of writing that inspire us, motivate us to take risks, mash together brand-new things, and grow our writing styles all the time. But what happens when you arrive at a crossroads I found myself—my favorite authors, each appearing to me at critical, formative times in my younger writing life, were complete polar opposites.

Words as Music… Or Something

At age 11, I plucked The Prince of Tides off my older sister’s bookshelf (it was the just-released-after-the-movie edition, with Barbara Streisand’s and Nick Nolte’s faces criss-crossed on the starry purple cover).

It was one of those love-at-first-sight book experiences. The first page got me, even though it broke every writing rule passed around to new authors today (make something happen on the first page; don’t zoom out into huge and vague characterizations). I can still recite the first lines from memory:

My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

I loved The Prince of Tides so much that I wore it out in a matter of months from re-reading. Pages would flutter out of the spine like subscription postcards from Better Homes & Gardens. The language was captivating. Most of it existed beyond the reach of my 11-year-old vocabulary. But from reading that book, over and over again, I learned how to choose individual words with more than pragmatism in mind—Pat Conroy’s writing taught me how to make words into art when I was very, very young.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Published in The New Yorker in 1996, the “Fourth State of Matter” was assigned to me in my freshman year at Ithaca College, while I was still in the music program, studying viola performance 8 hours a day. While reading Pat Conroy and Southern American fiction writers like him felt a lot like reading actual music, Jo Ann Beard’s writing was a cold bucket of water thrown on an electric radio. The music was sharpened into diamond-hard, action-verbed edges. Jo Ann Beard’s essays pounded syllables into daggers and swords.

I had not yet seen someone write like that.

The funny thing was, that style is also beautiful. And back then, I found that fact confusing, as one does when a new and different art form is discovered for the first time. Where has THIS been all my life?

Stirring the Stuff in the Writer’s Toolbox

The oft-referred-to “writer’s toolbox” isn’t a collection of lined-up phrases and interesting speaking voices and clever dialogue tricks, arranged neatly, as though in a tackle box. It’s more like a child’s Lego collection, a chattering mound of different-colored pieces dumped by someone’s enterprising inner organizer into a big toy bin, or maybe a big plastic Halloween cauldron.

Unlike a toy bin (or a tackle box, I suppose) the writer’s toolbox has lots of room for all the different styles you want to pour into it, and is forgiving of “I want my work to sound like this”-style snobbery (like mine).

Once you’ve accumulated a heap of writing styles from which to draw inspiration while writing, you’re faced with another problem: What do I choose?

So you reach blindly into the writer’s toolbox and stir, hoping to come up with something.

And What You Find Is…

Your writing voice has become a blend of the voices that have gone before you. Childhood favorites, college revelations, your favorite Internet writers, crumbs from commercial fiction writers and bits and pieces of high-school Chaucer. It’s all there.

Chances are, you could find each influence if you sifted your writing like you were panning for gold, but only you know that.

These days, echoes of both writers mentioned above show up in my writing; the lyrical bent is a result of reading Conroy; the occasional jagged edge and heavy editing hand are a direct result of my admiration for Beard. What about you? Who are your biggest literary influences, and what did you take from them? Share it in the comments!