I Have Stolen Your Words; Sorry

I have recently decided that I'm going to call myself a writer.

For a long time, I sort of cringed when someone asked me if I was a writer and stumbled over a way to deny the title without disrespecting the profession. I think there are two reasons I have resisted owning the word "writer" for so long:
  1. I love words so much, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for people who have made a career out of putting them on paper. I think it was Gary Shteyngart who said that a lot of people want to be writers but no one wants to be a reader. I have been very content with being a reader, a happy consumer of writers' work for a long time, and I didn't want to assume the role of peer with the people who've written the great art.
  2. On the other side, a lot of people who call themselves writers really aren't. Their work is sporadic, poorly written and has no substance. I didn't want to be associated with the "writers" who basically claim the title because it makes them sound artsy and free but didn't produce quality work to back it up.
But now as I'm, like, an adult (omg!) and have realized that I have to figure out what sort of career path I need to start steering towards, I've come to accept that I am a writer: I write, I am good at it, I want to get better and better, and I want to produce quality work that I am proud to put my name on. I began writing almost immediately after I could read, and I'm not entirely sure why it has taken me 20 years to circle back around to doing something that brings me such joy and satisfaction.

No writer is an island (it'll become a saying, just you wait), however, and my writing style has certainly changed over many years. In the same way that musicians are influenced by other bands and singers and incorporate others' style into their own music, writers develop their own style by copying the work of other authors. My writing is absolutely a product of everything I've read, whether through style, tone, or subject matter. 

I thought it would be fun for me, and maybe even for you, to see a list of the top six authors - and their works - who I feel have had the biggest influence on my style.

1. Kit Pearson (The Sky is Falling / Awake and Dreaming): Kit is the first author who made a lasting impression on me. I read The Sky is Falling in grade six and I was absolutely captivated with the story (you can read all about my love of the books and meeting Kit in this blog post). The first "novel" I began writing at the tender age of 11 was pretty much an exact copy of Pearson's Awake and Dreaming. I remember feeling that her characters were very realistic: ordinary children who must deal with extraordinary circumstances.

Pearson's method of characterization has stuck with me for years, and I think it's something that's lacking in a lot of YA lit today. So many protagonists are these superhumans youngsters who are smarter, wiser, and braver than anyone else in the story, and I think it's too showy, too unrealistic, and completely unrelatable (is that a word?). I like that with Kit's stories, I feel like I could be inserted in alongside the characters and I wouldn't be out of place.

2. J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban): I've talked about Harry Potter a bunch on this blog before (see this post for an explanation of my love of the series). The world of Harry Potter was (and still is, let's be honest) an escape into this mystical and wonderful new universe that was both familiar and completely unattainable. I love Rowling's attention to detail and the way she writes descriptive scenes: just enough information to aid you in constructing a mental image but not so much that you skim it all in the hopes of getting to more interesting parts. She is a wonderfully balanced writer.

What sets Prisoner of Azkaban apart from the others for me, though, was reading it at the age of 12, it was the first time I realized that words can be manipulated to say the most mundane things in the most beautiful ways. The line that struck me, so much that I remember talking about it constantly for days to anyone who would listen, occurs in the chapter where Harry has snuck into Hogsmead and is crouching on the floor under a table listening to the professors talk about Sirius Black. As the conversation ends, Rowling doesn't write "they stood up;" No, she says "One by one, the pairs of feet in front of Harry took the weight of their owners once more." I read that and thought: that is so clever and beautiful. Such a mundane task, such a throw-away moment, but it is so perfectly written. Of course Harry wouldn't have seen them stand up: he's lying on the floor with a minimal view. All he would have seen was the movement of the hems of their robes. What an absolutely perfect way of describing Harry's line of vision. It is this sort of careful, clever writing that has challenged me to think of better ways of saying the every-day.

3. Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz): I read this book after my first summer of working at Camp Starrigan. I was 16 and, perhaps unnecessarily, was filled with teen angst. I remember feeling like Don had taken everything I had ever felt and wrote it down on the page for anyone and everyone to read. I have never felt so simultaneously exposed and understood.

What I have taken from Don's style is an approach of raw honesty, wrapped up in a sort of cozy poetry. His writing gets to the root of a lot of painful and difficult issues, but he says it with such beautiful, simple language that it becomes soothing and healing as opposed to jarring and revealing. I aspire to write as beautifully about real life as he does.

4. Bill Bryson (Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe): I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the person who's writing I most often mimic, both sub- and consciously, is Bill Bryson. I have written about him a lot on this blog (see here, here, and here), so I won't spend another 1000 words singing his praises. But I think Bryson has got writing down to a science. He is funny, informative, clever, and has a very distinctive style that balances between the tone of an Englishman and an American. The more I read Bryson, the more I feel like his turns of phrase become embedded in my mind and I start writing and speaking like I am a 60 year old expat.

5. David Mitchell ("Your dog's died? Have an A-level then!"): I first came across David Mitchell during the fall of 2009 when I was supposed to be writing my honours paper and instead watched every single British panel show on YouTube. He was so sarcastic and angry and funny and spot on that I did some Googling and found that he writes for The Guardian newspaper. One of my favourite of his articles is "Your dog's died? Have an A-level then!" (linked above), in which he talks about the increasing ease to earn an A grade in the UK, and why this reflects poorly on the education system.

My attraction to David's writing is two-fold: 1) he talks a lot about politics and culture in the UK, which teaches me about British culture while keeping me up-to-date with current affairs, and 2) he is a stickler for good writing and attention to detail, and he often complains about how people do not respect communication  anymore. I agree with a great many of his opinions, and he also writes concisely and with a humorous flare that I find a pleasure to read.

6. Anne T. Donahue ("Old Lady Movie Night"): Anne is a recent discovery for me, and I have quickly come to love, laugh (at and with), and steal her writing style. I discovered Anne on a recommendation from a friend through the website HelloGiggles (which is an amazing woman's pop-culture website without being too feminist-y, if you know what I mean). Anne writes a weekly column called "Old Lady Movie Night," in which she watches movies from her youth and writes 25 points about them. I love her articles because we grew up in Canada in the same generation, so I understand all of her pop-culture references.

In particular, what I've taken from Anne is that her writing is fun, not weighed down by the rules of journalism and proper grammar. She writes in CAPS A LOT, and she often #hashtags #random #words, bringing social media into her work. Plus she is funny, and she writes like she is just making comments to you as you watch the movies alongside her. She writes for other websites, too, where her subject matter varies, and even her more "serious" pieces still have a sense of whimsy to them. I love that. I love that writing doesn't always have to be precise and proper to provoke a reaction.

Ok, if you've made it through CONGRATS and I owe you a hug and maybe also some baked goods. I've realized that it takes me so long to write blog entries because I say way too much. I might work on that. I might not. Maybe we can have both quality and quantity! We can have it all!


Number of Books Read in 2012: 12
Current TV Series: Sherlock (season 2)
Current Nail Colour: Essie's "Turquoise and Caicos"


Zach said…
Dear Jillian,

I am sure that you will be pleased to hear that this post has just made my Instapaper "Read Later" list. I have not actually read your post, excepting a brief skimming, and after which I started reading David Mitchell's posts at The Guardian instead. Interestingly, neither your posts, nor Mr. Mitchell's, are the hematology textbooks that I really should be reading.

But take heart, Jillian. Only those posts which most interest me can incite the Instapaper javascript voodoo that is the "Read Later" bookmarklet, summoned forth from the core of my Firefox. It is truly an honour.

Perhaps I will soon write a comment on the actual content of your post. One which I am sure you are eagerly awaiting.

With sincerity,
Anonymous said…
I have considered you a writer for as long as I can remember...you just are. Forward baked goods to 13 Hillcrest Rd. Hugz, A. Janis
Anonymous said…
Interesting post, you've made me realize that I think I might also mimic Bill Bryson in my writing - most likely because he's a travel writer. I remember when I started writing blogs about London last semester I decided to try and make them more informative and educational, but in a light way. If only I was half as clever and witty as Bill!
I totally identify with you about Rowling and how authors can make mundane things so much more poetic and beautiful. I love an author that can convey raw emotions in a way I can identify with.
Sarah said…
I want a hug and baked goods! Let's hang. Kit Pearson changed my life, yo.

P.S. "too feminist-y"? Really? :(
Zach said…
Dear Jillian,

Finally, as I am sure you are quite hypoxic from the holding of your breath for all these days, here are my thoughts. They lack depth, and are presented in no particular order.

- You have inspired me to read Bill Bryson at my next opportunity.

- I too have a fondness for Kit Pearson, extending from a childhood reading of The Sky Is Falling et al., though I have never written a novel like or unlike hers.

- Though this seems to surprise many people, I have never read any J.K. Rowling. But I find your speech in favor of her writing very compelling; the sentence you quoted is wonderful to read.

- David Mitchell --> <3

- Don Miller has influenced my thoughts about Christianity and religion and spirituality strongly, in ways I haven't quite identified. I read Blue Like Jazz during what turned out to be very formative years for me, and found it significant. His writing is so often poetic, and pleasant to inhale. Inhale, because both times I have read this book, it has lasted me only three hours or so.

In conclusion, this post was a good read, Jillian. Thanks.

With sincerity,

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