Overcoming the Anxiety of Influence

In my first year of college, I took an English course that introduced me to a world of intellectualism I had only dreamed of as a high school student. For the first time, I was challenged to push my natural talents for interpretation and writing, and I encountered concepts that fascinated me. Among these concepts was the anxiety of influence, the critic Harold Bloom’s idea that we writers (well, he specified poets, but let’s pretend he said writers) are aware of and anxious over the extensive literary history we have to distinguish ourselves from when we write.

Everyone wants to be an original, but we are all influenced by what has come before. I recall, as a child, wanting desperately to make something unique; I was terrified of only repeating what others had said. It was, in fact, a reasonable fear, as most of the things I wrote in my early youth were entirely unoriginal. It took time for me to find my own voice, and even longer to overcome my anxiety of influence.

I had to embrace my influences. It’s unavoidable that we as writers will reference other writers and other works, and instead of trying to ignore that our work is referential, we should turn to what has come before and engage with those ideas in new ways.

I write primarily in the fantasy genre, but I still do research for what I write. Some of it is for world-building purposes. Looking at the history and technology of automobiles, would the people in my world, relying mainly on a small magical population of workers, be able to produce cars as we know them? That’s kind of boring, but I like to think about those things when I make a world.

More interesting is the research I do to figure out the people in my writing. For the novel I’m currently working on, I’ve referenced two very different sources: the Bible and Machiavelli’s Prince. Although I’m not a Christian, I’m fascinated by the Abrahamic religious tradition. Maybe it’s because I went to a Catholic school as a kid. Whatever the reason, I found myself looking at Genesis while I was planning out The Sleepless Ones. You can probably see the influence of Genesis in this passage:

“You looked around and saw you were in a field, where the earth was soaked with blood. The earth opened, and the blood called to you.” Mr. Miller stopped, closing his eyes. “‘What’s born of blood will never die,’ you said, and you told me that you heard the blood calling to you still, even as you stood here, in this room.”

Then again, maybe I just really like talking about gory stuff.

With Machiavelli, I was really interested in the famous question he posed: if you are a ruler, is it better to be loved or feared? Machiavelli ultimately decided it was better to be feared, but cautioned rulers to never be hated. Now, most people have a poor understanding Machiavelli, since they’ve never read him, but I won’t waste space defending my dear Machiavelli. (I will say, though, that The Prince is an easy read, and you should read it.)

I’ve read my share of dystopian novels, and the problem with most of the rulers in those worlds is that they make themselves hated. That was my biggest issue with The Hunger Games; the president and government made themselves feared but also hated. For my book, I’ve challenged myself create rulers who, while not loved or trusted, are not hated. My Princes are not openly cruel, and though some do fear them, very few rally for rebellion against them.

I’m okay with referencing earlier works in my writing, because I think it only strengthens my novel. It shows that I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’ve created. So, fellow writers, let us not fear that we have nothing original to say. Let’s engage with the texts that have influenced us, and let’s make something new from our reactions to them.

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