Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 3 August 2014

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing? By Mary Smith

This is one of the questions which often crops up on author interviews and it’s the one I most hate trying to answer.

For one thing, I never quite know what it means. Is it encouraging me to name authors I greatly admire? If so, there are many I could name in the field of both fiction and non-fiction, dead and alive. However, I always worry by answering in this way I am somehow suggesting their influence makes me try to emulate them or they have influenced me to write like them. Heaven forfend anyone should think I could be so arrogant.

Or, is the question asking which writers influenced me to want to write in the first place? This is the approach I usually take, citing authors I read as a child, who had the power to take me away from my little world and into a world of adventure. I think I believed I was an invisible member of The Famous Five!

Perhaps, the question is not about which published writers have influenced me but about who had a great influence on me. I have read several interviews in which authors cite a teacher, most often an English teacher, who saw something in them struggling to get out and who encouraged them.

I was thinking about English teachers I had at school – it probably goes without saying English was my favourite subject – when I remembered Jimmy Mac. He was my English teacher in my first year of secondary school. I remember he could be very sarcastic and cutting but as I was good at English this didn’t worry me. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I quite likely took an unpleasant delight in the suffering of less fortunate pupils who felt the brunt of his sarcasm. Until, that is, I received the worst ever mark for what in those days was called a composition.

The subject was ‘My School Holiday’. Yawn, yawn. I decided to write something a bit more exciting than our week in Fleetwood and turned in a short story about finding a stolen bracelet in the catacombs of Rome (a city I had never visited) and catching the criminals. Jimmy Mac marked it 9 out of 30 and I was devastated. “What book did you find this story in?” he demanded. Not only a deplorably low mark but an accusation of plagiarism thrown in – though I don’t think I knew what to plagiarise meant in those days. I told him I’d made up my story; that it came out of my head. I can still visualise the sneer on his face! He pointed out I had not been asked to write a story but a composition and must learn to do as I was told in his class.

This was in the late sixties and I did not write another word of fiction for the next quarter of a century so I guess he really was the biggest influence in my life as a writer. 

He was my teacher again in third year, by which time we had moved from compositions to essays. He was known as a strong Labour party man and I knew I was taking a huge risk when I turned in my last essay. The title was ‘A Cause for Which I Would Die’ and I presented an impassioned argument for Scottish independence. He threw my marked paper on my desk, saying, “I totally disagree with your sentiment but I have to admit you have done your research and marshalled your arguments well.” He had given me 27 out of 30. No wonder I stuck with non-fiction for so long.

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing life?

16 comments:

  1. Interesting about that teacher Mary but I hold it against him you didn't write fiction for so long. He was a fool! As to my own real-life influences, I don't think I would cite a teacher. I think the thing that kept me going thinking about writing and eventually brought me back to doing some writing was my friends - Zana and Zelda who were at universtity with me and who I'm still in contact with (about writing and other things!). And the more recent friends I have made since I began to take my writing more seriously (Mary you're one of them!) have been a great inspiration.

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    1. Thanks Gill. It's scary to think how much a teacher can influence someone one way or another. And thanks for including me in your circle of inspiring friends. Made my day, has that.

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  2. Hmm...Mary, that was very thought-provoking. I honestly don't know who was the biggest influence on my writing. I'm not so arrogant as to think I'm original, so I can only imagine it must have been a whole load of people, each a bit at a time.

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    1. I think probably sums it up for most of us, Jennifer. And, of course, you are original; have your own original voice. I am sure if each of us were given the samy synopsis and told to write the story we would have as many different, original stories as there are writers!

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  3. What a terrible influence that teacher was on your fiction, Mary. He obviously wanted to maintain complete control of the students, although I suppose we could argue that his job was partly to make sure you all followed instructions correctly! At least he recognised your writing ability in the end.

    I think the main influence on me was all the wonderful escapist fiction I read while growing up, though it took me a very long time to realise I could attempt writing any! Also talking on my blog about the huge influence of the set of The Children's Encyclopedia on my learning etc.

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary. I did learn a lot from him and I suppose learning to follow instructions was one good lesson, as was understanding the need for research and reading widely round a subject. I still wish he hadn't made me think I was useless at inventing stories. Though, looking back, the fact he more or less accused me of lifting my story from a book should have made me realise I COULD make things up!
      I didn't have The Children's Encyclopedia but my father bought me a subscription to a magazine called, I think, Finding Out. It had articles on history and geography and the natural world and, best of all, the Greek myths.

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  4. I was so fortunate to have wonderful teachers and access to as many books as I could tote home from the library! But Mary, I love that you held your ground in the face of Jimmy Mac's intimidation. Had you been a less gifted person, he might have done permanent damage. And I credit your mark on the Scottish independence essay all to you. You did that in spite of him, not thanks to him. I pity a man who has no imagination.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Lorrie. And thank you for your very supportive comments. I hadn't considered that Jimmy Mac simply had no imagination. I like that thought.
      The damage may not have been permanent but I do resent how long it took for me to start believing I could write fiction. Got there in the end though!

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  5. Hmm, food for thought here. I absolutely dread being asked my favourite author or book. I often wonder if it's a trick question to find out how well-read, or not, I am. So for me it's not who has influenced but what - and for me it is the need to get the words that whizz around in my mind down onto paper.

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    1. Oh, Linda, I know what you mean about wondering if it's a trick question! If I'm asked about my favourite author I always say I have too many to mention or explain that I frequently change my mind and it is most often the writer I'm currently reading. Interesting it is a what rather than a who which is the biggest influence on your writing.

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  6. It seems that quite of few of us dread that question. Me, too. I think my influences have changed with every decade as I have discovered different writers. Some writing excites me enough to try a whole new approach, such as a prose poem rather than a poem for example. Experiences in your own life hugely influence your writing, too.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Lesley. You are so right about personal experiences influencing our writing.

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  7. Great topic, Mary! I think the influences are immensely wide and varied. I learned the power of storytelling very young. I can remember reading the whole Narnia series when I was about six or seven and being absolutely enthralled. Enid Blyton when I was younger than that, but ditto. My mother spotted by writing ability and paid for one of those correspondence course things when I was a teenage, but I was put off creative writing when I studied literature at Uni. I know I could never be another Tolstoy or Eliot or Austen, so why even try?

    It took me a long time to get back to it!

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    1. Thanks, Jenny. I've heard a few people who studied English Literature say it stopped them believing they could write.
      On a recent author interview I decided to answer the question as what writers made me want to write and first up was Enid Blyton! She had the power to make me believe I was part of the Famous Five (albeit an invisible member) sharing in their adventures. I wanted that power to take people into a different world (I'm not talking science fiction either)

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  8. Just a comment from a writer of non-fiction: two things stick in my mind re this subject: aged 11, in my small private primary school which was owned by the ex-head of English at the local girls' grammar school (which I eventually attended) we were given the task of writing a 'lecture', not a story. This had to be factual. And so (and yes, I do begin sentences with 'and') I wrote about the occasion my mother took me to a local race meeting. A thunderstorm, a very violent one, took place. We were in the grandstand and my reportage was about the lightning flashing all around the course, and the torrential rain and the loud claps of thunder. And then, tragedy. A horse fell and had to be shot. I knew this happened to race horses if they fell, but today I am sure screens would've been placed around the stricken animal. However, in those days, the vet simply shot it right in front of us. That day has lived in my memory for more than 60 years.
    When the teacher addressed the class after we had done this work, she said that only one person had done what had been required of them: me. I then had to read out what I had written to the class as an example of good, factual writing.
    Strangely enough, I found it even more exciting to recapture a real event than think up 'a story'. And even today, while I love to read fiction - and I do read a helluva lot of fiction - I write non-fiction.

    The second influence was my grammar school English teacher. She taught us such phrases (long before Pete and Dud, I might add!) such as "Not only ... but also", and "Similarly ..." when we wanted to give another example of something, and she went puce if anyone dared to use two words that she ruled out of our vocabulary: nice and got! She said nice didn't mean anything, and got was simply vulgar.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment on my blog post. No wonder that day at the races has lived with you for ever. I am with you on the excitement of recreating a real event and in my own journalism what I love best is sharing something I've found exciting - whether a personal experience or discovering something not well known about a place or a person.

      Even so, I still had a hankering to try my hand at making up a story.

      At my school we were taught never to use nice or got, for exactly the same reasons as you were given. We were told that only did nice not mean anything but we were showing laziness if we used it.

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