Sunday, 3 August 2014
Who has been the biggest influence on your writing? By Mary Smith
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?