Genetic Markers

From Crocopotamus, by Mary Murphy

I feel like I am the product of other writers. Their influence on me is scary to think about. It’s an honor, but also it interrupts your sense of self to know how much of you is Alice Walker. How much of you is June Jordan, who’s dead. You feel like she’s alive in you. How much of me is Durga? I didn’t really know much about film before I started reading Durga on Cassavetes. How much of my instruments of observation have been influenced by her? I like thinking that every writer is just an amalgamation of other writers, because it is a little scary and disorienting. What is writing if not grotesque?

—Doreen St. Felix

I’ve had several writing teachers, the sort of overt coach-editors who look over your shoulder and wonder aloud along with you about how something is working and what you might try differently. Some have been marvelous, and I’ll name the most important ones here in chronological order: Paul Groth, David Littlejohn, Judith Kenny, Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, Elizabeth Branch Dyson, Peter Ho Davies.

But they didn’t teach me how to write. Or why.

That came, as it always does, just from reading. From reading and reading and reading, and knowing what parts of the bestiary of language are somehow most compelling, and reading those again, and drawing in through osmosis what it is that those writers have done to create that impact that they’re having on you.

Our writing selves are an unnameable assembly of influences—both admirable and disreputable—that somehow become commingled, and then expressed through us.

Unlike the kids’ make-an-animal flipbooks, though, it’s not always easy to know which part of our writing anatomy can be linked back to which origin. The Crocopotamus can be identified as the head and shoulders of a crocodile, the torso and back legs of a hippopotamus. But DNA doesn’t really work that way. Our writing history coils and connects with our own desires in unique and unpredictable ways.

I look at my own writing life, the artifacts that have been left behind as books and newsprint, inkjet pages and .docx files. And every so often, I’ll see traces of Joan Didion in a sentence, like looking in the mirror while shaving and suddenly noticing that I do look a little like my brother. I have a character who arrived last week, pretty clearly influenced by an unseen character in the Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr: the disembodied advisor over the phone who says the things that the characters within the story can’t say. I haven’t read an Anna Pigeon book in three years, it wasn’t on my mind at that moment. But that person lives in some protein connection somewhere within me, and was bound to be expressed.

We can’t help who we’re influenced by, just as we can’t help that our father’s family were Scots-Irish Confederates and our mother’s family were English Puritan New Englanders. That’s all beyond our influence. But I remember going around the table at Bread Loaf three years ago, as we talked about influential writers by way of introducing ourselves, and knowing that my choices were clearly marking me as lowbrow. I mean, that was clearly NOT the room in which to talk about how much I loved the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. No, that was a place for one-upmanship, a place to talk about how much you adore the work of some obscure novelist while the rest of us murmured pretend-approving noises even as we’d never once heard of this person you named. (I have to say, though, that Netflix has made me a hero. I’ve been touting the work of Walter Tevis for twenty years, and The Queen’s Gambit makes me look prescient. That book was 37 years between publication and TV adaptation, but now it’s back in the bookstores again. As is true for children, sometimes it takes a long time for our gifts to be acknowledged. But I can’t go back in time to that conference table and say told ya so…)

Somewhere in my DNA twist are tiny genetic scraps of Tevis and Stout, of Didion and Barr. Of Gia Tolentino and Emily Nussbaum, of Jon Carroll and Alain de Botton. But those are only the nameable ones, the genetic markers that have been studied most closely. I’m also made up of thousands and thousands of anonymous writers who produced scripts for TV shows and cartoons, who wrote articles for Hot Rod magazine and Reader’s Digest and little jokes on those risqué bar napkins. I’m descended from stand-up comics, Lutheran pastors, adult-bookstore paperbacks, cereal boxes. I can occasionally catch a glimpse of Hannah Arendt from 1958, but I’m just as likely to see a Hamm’s Beer ad from 1962. Just as we all have distant, half-Neanderthal origins somewhere in our genetic line, all writers have other writers we could never name but who appear in some trait we’re scarcely aware of ourselves. We have genetic predispositions that will only be known after the fact.