Why do I write like this? What inside my head drives me to choose, for instance, a short opening sentence followed by a longer explanatory sentence, both structured as rhetorical questions? What is it that quietly tells me a phrase has just the right number of syllables, and that I should stop right there, or, if the idea isn't quite expressed yet, figure out a way to rephrase?

Everyone has his or her own unique voice, of course: mine is the type to mention that I just saved you a semester of Creative Writing 101. And people who write regularly (like folks with weblogs) can usually, without too much difficulty, note subtle changes in their style over time – perhaps one month you favor the dash; later that year it's on to semicolons. The underlying way of speaking, of telling a story, though, will always remain.

But where does it come from? I'd love to tell you I grew up reading Shakespeare, or Swift, or even... Seuss. (It had to be another "S" word, you understand) But I didn't. I tried my hand at the classics once or twice - wading shin-deep into A Separate Peace one summer, ambitiously trying out Crime and Punishment another - but it was no good.

I was too busy laughing my head off at Calvin & Hobbes, or idiotically avoiding reading the work of other authors for fear that it would "sully me," somehow hijacking my still-developing, sure-to-be-unlike-any-other-in-the-history-of-humanity artistic vision. I can't have some dumb ol' Dostoyevsky creeping into my future novels, can I?

The truth is that your influences are gonna influence you whether you like it or not. The fairness, though, is that these influences will almost always tend to be the things that naturally interest you most - in my case, for whatever reason, mainly erudite, goofy essays, which I'm proud to say I still enjoy thoroughly.

With that in mind, I gathered together some sampled works of writers who I occasionally hear coming through in my sentences. I'm not embarrassed to admit this; not at all - in fact, as I look down through the list I see a lot of great stuff... stuff I wish I'd written.

So if you've ever liked anything I've written here... even if it was just one little turn of phrase, in one little paragraph, on my very best day, you should know that there's a lot more where that came from. You'll find a lot of it in the list below. I'd also like to think there's a lot more to follow, but for that you'll have to wait - and so will I.

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird:
"The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so little. But we do."

Charlie Hopper, explaining the origin of a billboard that's become a local landmark:
"A six-month contract in 1992 for a billboard in the heart of Broad Ripple Village, the city's 'arty' district, led to this: a collection of (let's just say it) junk sculpted into giant eyeglass frames on behalf of a local boutique-y optometrist. When the contract ended, no one had the heart to take it down: it was good for business, and good for the neighborhood. It's still up, and has become part of the lore of Broad Ripple (people say the stuff is dredged from the river, which is colorful but untrue) and a tourist stop on city tours..."

Dave Barry, on his snowmobiling excursion out West:
"...We rented our snowmobiles at a place called the Smiley Creek Lodge, which is in a place called Smiley Creek, which pretty much consists of the Smiley Creek Lodge. We also rented helmets and jumpsuits so that we would look as much as possible like the Invasion of the Dork Tourists From Space. A very nice man showed us how to make the snowmobiles go. He seemed extremely calm, considering that he was turning three powerful and expensive machines over to two adolescent boys and a humor columnist. I thought he'd give us detailed instructions regarding where we should go, but basically all he said was that we should make an effort to remain in Idaho."

David Sedaris, relating his experience of being pulled out of fifth-grade geography to be administered surprise speech therapy:
"...'David,' the teacher said, 'this is Miss Samson, and she'd like you to go with her now.' No one else had been called, so why me? I ran down a list of recent crimes, looking for a conviction that might stick. Setting fire to a reportedly flameproof Halloween costume, stealing a set of barbecue tongs from an unguarded patio, altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door; never did it occur to me that I might be innocent."

Erma Bombeck, on her distrust of escalators:
"...It is not generally known, but the word escalator is taken from two Greek words "escalle" and "latum" meaning "miss a step and there'll be one less voter at the polls this election." They were discovered by an American Chemist who was frightened by a soap slogan that claimed to do everything. He promised a dying guinea pig he would disprove this theory. One night in his laboratory, he discovered there was one thing the soap could not do. It could not move people about from place to place without an effort on the part of the person..."

Evan Finch, putting a heading on his ever-expanding archive of Things To Do:
"I am a compulsive picker-upper-and-reader. I stare at flyers on phone poles. I pick up free papers in supermarkets. And if some wild-eyed nut on the street hands me a grimy leaflet, I take it. By default, I've gained a pretty good knowledge of current events (plus a house that's overflowing with paper, and a reasonably easy rapport with wild-eyed nuts)..."

Jim Poyser, advising a house-sitter on the care and feeding of his family's many pets:
"...The anoles soon died and this was tragic to my mind because there are all these moths in the house that in their larvae stage can be plucked off the ceiling and walls and furniture (you’ll see them everywhere) and fed to the anoles. Now that the anoles are gone I don’t have the heart to catch the larvae for them so you’re also likely to find yourself caught in a cloud of moths from time to time. The moths do not bite but I think they are quietly menacing in their subtle way."

Luke Sullivan, defending his hatred of Charmin's Mr. Whipple:
"...He may have been an effective salesman. (Billions of rolls.) He may have been a strong brand image. (He knocked Scott tissues out of the #1 spot.) But it all comes down to this: If I had created Mr. Whipple, I don't think I could tell my son with a straight face what I did at the office. 'Well, son, you see, Whipple tells the lady shoppers not to squeeze the Charmin but then, then he squeezes it himself... Hey, wait, come back.' As an idea, Whipple isn't good."

Roald Dahl, here picking up steam on page four of his story, "The Boy Who Talked With Animals":
"...A haul of fish is something that has always fascinated me. I put my book aside and stood up. More people were trooping down from the hotel veranda and hurrying over the beach to join the crowd on the edge of the water. The men were wearing those frightful Bermuda shorts that come down to the knees, and their shirts were bilious with pinks and oranges and every other clashing color you could think of. The women had better taste, and were dressed for the most part in pretty cotton dresses. Nearly everyone carried a drink in one hand."

Ronnie Cordova, whose writing has appeared in McSweeney's, Lime Tea, Monkeybicycle, Eyeshot, Haypenny and elsewhere, and writes regularly in his online journal:
"...The delicate functioning of the inner ear is one of evolution's breathtaking achievements, a tiny wonder of engineering positively alien in appearance. The stapes, the incus, the malleus. The mouth, that anus of the head, looks coarse and obvious in comparison to the ear canal; the aesthetic ranking of the head holes is no contest. I owe it to my cochleas to live a fulfilling life, to make a go of things, to reach for my dreams, whatever those dreams might turn out to be."

And the tirelessly incandescent Wee, explaining why she employed "much fluttering of the eyelashes" to persuade her husband to join her for the morning walk with beloved hound Finny J.:
"...It was snowing, you see, round confetti snow, glistening-romantic-swoony-wrap-around-your-loved-one and pretend-you-are-trapped-inside-a-snowglobe kind of snow, you know? The kind of snow we haven't had for ages, and certainly not while the Handsome Guy was home. I needed him to come and admire how the snowflakes glistened on my cheeks and eyelashes and stuff (whilst pointedly ignoring the post nasal drip and bad hat hair and general undesirable lumpishness my puffy doggie walking jacket gives me and how my snowpants make those lame swishing noises and make my behind look seriously boxy.)"


And, just for good measure, here are a few more, whose effect on my writing is just beginning because I've only recently discovered them:

Robert Benchley, who Dave Barry says influenced his writing:
"I can't bring myself to say, 'Well, I guess I'll be toddling along.' It isn't that I can't toddle. It's just that I can't guess I'll toddle."

Brian Sack (the guy who sold his leather pants on eBay), explaining to the person who found his digital camera why the memory card contains 17 close-ups of a cat's butt.
"...And you see, there's the rub: Teddy's bum. Every once in a while it acts up and requires surgery of some sort that I hope not to learn more about, ever. This surgery also results in Teddy being forced to wear a humiliating cone on her head to prevent her from licking the affected area. You'd think you wouldn't have to be prevented from licking your behind, but as I said before: cats march to their own drummer, even if that drummer thinks the sphincter is candy."

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, from her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which I'm loving so far:
"Amy Rosenthal - My father-in-law informed me that my married name could produce these two anagrams: Hearty Salmon. Nasty Armhole. I cannot tell you how much I love that."


Katrina said...

An excellent group! Thanks for sharing -- there's some people I'll have to check out.

Anonymous said...

"But where does it come from? I'd love to tell you I grew up reading Shakespeare, or Swift, or even... Seuss. (It had to be another "S" word, you understand) ".... I DO understand!!!! I so totally DO! And the fact that YOU have that compulsion that drive just sent me swooning to the floor. What cn I say? I'm a swooner.

I love Dave Barry, although I haven't read him in a while. I think it was his term for his second dog that really won me over.. he always described him as the "auxillary dog." Now that's capital F funny!

And you, Colin Dullaghan, would totally make my list of my favourite writers. You never fail to say at least one thing that makes my toes curl into round little turtles of delight. Can't WAIT to read your first novel!

xo Wee

Anonymous said...

I am also one of those people that says "a myriad" and never double checks her spelling even though she is completely aware of her own horrific failings in spelling AND punctuation!

xo Wee

wendy said...

What a fabulous list, and like wee will wait excitedly for your novel.
Maybe even wait in a line, camp out over night.

jane said...

Your writing belongs on that wonderful list. You always have something to impart that is hug-it-to=my-chest delightful, which may be a poor description; I hope you understand what I mean. Keep it up!