Influence from Great Writers

Nathan Bransford (author, agent, media manager) asked on his blog“Which Writers Most Influence Your Work?” It’s a short blog, but generated a great deal of response.  It’s worth looking at, if you can get past the Mom and Dad and “My second-grade teacher said…” stuff, although my response slinks a bit toward that.  So, here goes:

At Oglethorpe University (in the dark ages half a century ago) my senior English professor said, “Steve, you have a very nice way with words; you just need something to write about.” I took that as an encouraging comment, whether it was meant that way or not. A year later I was in a writing class at The New School (NYC) in which the teacher was so harsh that I gave up writing fiction for decades. Really. So, they were both influential regarding my writing.

Fortunately over the years I grew up, grew thicker skin, and began to write fiction, my first and long neglected writing love.  The writers who have influenced me in style, process, structure, and thought include Ron Carlson, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Philip and Henry Roth, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chandler, Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, E. L. Doctorow, Donald E. Westlake, Bernard Malamud, Melville, and of course Nabokov. Not all at the same time, certainly, but all are behind me kicking my butt generally forward (a self-indulgent fantasy, but not a bad one to have).

Below, I add for my dear readers just how (or why) some of the authors I’ve listed have helped me.

Ron Carlson:  a great teacher and writer of short stories and accessible novels.  He grabs everyday life, wrestles it from the mundane, and makes it meaningful.

William Faulkner:  His more famous works are FAMOUS and worthy, although the style doesn’t fit the modern audience.  Read his earlier works first, which are simpler (Mosquitos and Soldier’s Pay).  Don’t ignore Light in August, a great read, not in the stream-of-consciousness style in which one sentence could run for pages. He does “bad guys” so deeply that you almost root for them.

John Steinbeck is down-to-earth, gritty, and “real.”  Great characters who struggle with right and wrong.  My favorite is Winter of Our Discontent.

Vladimir Nabokov can be hard to read.  (Hey, he’s Russian.)  He’s very internal, not plot driven, actually more personal issue/problem oriented.  Most people know about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or seen the movie.  Many people consider Lolita a book about pedophilia, although the real subject is obsession, which is why I call his work problem oriented.  Amazingly poetic writing given that English is his third language.

Kurt Vonnegut is funny, caustic, incisive, and terse.  I strive for these things.

Donald E. Westlake also writes terrific bad guys.  Read The Ax to see how Westlake goes so deeply into the bad guy that you can understand why he’s bad and maybe start rooting for him (or her).  I became comfortable writing “bad” characters from reading his.  Maybe too comfortable.

Henry Roth shows how to write three-dimensional children who are able to be “smarter than their age” in Call It Sleep.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You may be wondering where my fiction is (if not necessarily where you can buy it.)  Fair question.  I’ve written four novels and a book of short stories.  I just haven’t published them.  Why?: A)  I love writing stories; sending them out for publication steals time from that;  B) Fear of failure; C) Fear of success; D) All of the above.  But two of the novels will soon be available on Amazon/Create Space and/or BookBaby, affordably priced.  I’d love to know what you think of the novels.

 

 

Can we end without an ending? Doctorow did.

I just finished reading E. L. Doctorow’s “Wakefield,” a short story in his 2011 collection called, All the time in the world.  “Wakefield” is the tale of a successful middle-aged lawyer who “accidentally” (comes early, so not a spoiler) abandons his home, family, and job by secretly moving into the virtually unused storage space above their detached garage.  It’s an intriguing premise and executed as well as one would expect of a writer as fine as Doctorow.

But it’s not a finished story.  That is, the story stops at the very point where the reader yearns to know the consequences of Howard Wakefield’s nearly year-long absence and abandonment of his family.  He, Wakefield (and thus writer Doctorow) carries on this big change of life, then is instigated to change back, but he (and we) are literally left at the opened door.  It leaves me wanting to write at least the next scene, but since it’s a great writer’s story who chose to leave it “unfinished,” do I dare?  I can see it, perhaps, being used as an exercise in an MFA writing class.  I can see it being praised for its “literariness.”  (If Doctorow can leave me hanging like that, can’t I coin a word, even if it’s never used again?)

This technique might be called “in medias res,” Latin for “in the middle of things,” except that this usually refers to beginning in the middle of a story, not ending there.  Thrillers and mysteries often begin in medias res, but can you imagine one ending there?

If I were to read “Wakefield” as my own work to a critique group (temporarily as “mine” and presuming they didn’t already know it), I could expect to be flayed for not ending the story.  “This story is unsatisfying!” “Actions have consequences!”  “You’re copping out, Figler!  Don’t come back without an end to this story and an apple streusel!” etc.  Or, someone may like stories that end without ending.

What other published stories by good or great writers have ended without an ending (consequence, etc.)?  How did you feel about it?  How might your story be received if you did this?