Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Under the Influence

Lately, happily, I’ve received a number of comments about my posts here that were very kind indeed. Arguably, overly kind! One or two have rendered me speechless (with gratitude and amazement!) – and if you know me at all, or my writing, you know how rare an event that is.

It got me to thinking about where my style of writing came from. Every so often, I’ll write something, just a phrase or a sentence, and read it back to myself, and think, “Well, that was very…” [whichever author I had just emulated or imitated or committed thievery upon]. The advice to writers has always been, “write what you know”; similarly, you can’t write in a style that isn’t yours, or at least you can’t write well in a style you don’t know very well.

So… here’s a page of navel-gazing in the guise of trying to trace my writing’s ancestry, to wit: authors whom I’ve read extensively, or writers whose style has made enough of an impact on me to affect what rebounds back out of my brain after I’ve read their stuff.

First things first: I had to learn to read, and I had to learn that reading was the thing to do. Mom and Dad were steadfast in carrying out their responsibilities: teach the toddler to read. Make sure he shows up to first grade ready to go. So: gigantic poster-paper flash cards, seven inches tall by as much as three feet long, containing various fun words to read.

Next: the teachers who didn’t just assign books to read, they found us fun things to read and then sent us off to find our own.

[] Joan Baird was my first-grade teacher; she put me in a reading group of exactly two people (and herself). We spent time reading the textbook full of stories and just took off. Pretty soon, we were making regular pilgrimages to the school library to find books we wanted to read. For me? Significantly, I think, the first book I remember pulling off the shelf and being intrigued by: “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet”. Insert punchlines here…

[] Barbara Howe was my third- and fourth-grade teacher (she had a weirdo experimental combined third-/fourth-grade class which was about thirteen different shades of awesome), and she was the first teacher who gave me packets of pages with prompts and empty lines upon which to write creatively. I probably have those packets buried in a closet somewhere, and I probably don’t want to read what at the time (at the age of 8) I thought was clever – but it was undoubtedly the moment I figured out that as cool as reading was, it weren’t nothin’ compared to writing my own stuff.

First major literary influence? Interestingly, a comic strip; but not surprisingly, Charles M. Schulz. I acquired curiosity about World War I while reading about Snoopy’s imaginary flying-ace exploits; I got early theological training from Linus Van Pelt; and I remember very clearly reading Peppermint Patty’s dressing-down of Charlie Brown, “C’mon, Chuck!” and trying to pronounce the first word “see, mon!” How much more than just a comic strip was Peanuts?

Summers at the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover, Massachusetts ended up cementing my love of musical activity, but they started out with a pretty firm pursuit of writing, creative and otherwise. The arts day camp’s daily newspaper, “The Daily Double,” featured a number of luminaries (who to the outside world probably looked like 14-year-old campers and high-school-/college-aged camp counselors) who already wrote like nobody else I knew. David Zakon introduced me to the voice of the cynic – writing with a perpetually raised eyebrow. Mark Tavares’ writing voice I couldn’t even classify but it was some of the most inventive forms of self-expression I’d bumped into to that point. And Julie Sade represented the voice of cool, calm, collected journalism, with a slight edge of goofy.

And possibly the most ridiculous concept ever, which the CRCAP world perpetrated twice a summer, was the production of a complete musical theater show (from auditions to curtain call) over the course of a three-and-a-half-week camp session. The shows were usually written by the camp’s playwriting class, led by a writing department counselor who would thereafter polish the script. Add musical score, stir and serve. Some of the results were at best “workable”; some of them were very good considering they were the writing equivalent of short-order cooking; and a few were just plain brilliant. David Downing’s script, called “Food For Thought”, was a cautionary tale about nutrition choices, and if that sounds bland as tofu, you haven’t seen the show. On top of which, “Food” features a musical score by Tom Megan that includes a finale so good (with wise lyrics and music that is a hybrid of Dave Brubeck, 70s soft-rock and Claude Debussy) that if you heard it on its own somewhere, you’d be shocked to know it came from a children’s musical.

The other show that you never forgot, if you were involved with it, was called “The Titanic Goes Hawaiian -or- The Great American Disaster Musical.” Talk about a script that swerved crazily from one topical parody to another, from one awful pun to a worse one ten seconds later. Sam Abel was the writer, able to manage wisecrack and wisdom like Joe Torre juggled the various monumental Yankees of the late 1990s. And I learned from his play “Left Out” two summers later that one can write a deadly serious play with very funny lines in it.

Meanwhile… I’ve been thinking of published authors whose material so struck me that the style of their writing made it firmly into my own…

[] Whoever it was who wrote the Marx Brothers movies. The Marx Brothers, probably. As a fourth-grader, I discovered Groucho Marx cracking wise, and it was a discovery that no one else really grasped, in the circles I ran in. So I just walked home from school, put my “Three Hours, Fifty-Nine Minutes and Fifty-Seven Seconds with the Marx Brothers” record on the turntable, and snickered.

[] David Gerrold. Again, my 11-year-old nerd self bought the book that Mr. Gerrold wrote about his 1967 Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, partly because I was (and still am) a nut for anything “behind-the-scenes”. Also because that Star Trek episode was going primarily for laughs, a rare thing indeed. The wry humor contained therein kinda struck me. It also set me up for life with a propensity for writing single-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect.

That propensity dogs me still.

[] Ogden Nash, most famous for punchy, pun-laden short poetry, e.g. “A wondrous creature is the germ / Though smaller than the pachyderm” and “Why did the Lord give us agility, / If not to evade responsibility?” A couple of years ago I wrote a children’s musical, and some of the lyrics, now that I look back at them, were Nash all the way:

In the ancient of days, back before you were born / Our poor planet was quiet from evening till morn

Not a life form was stirring, not even a germ / Or a virus or fungus or insect or worm

Not a thing there would scurry or amble or crawl / And it wasn’t inspiring; ‘twas nothing at all

Did the Earth wonder to itself, “what’s this about?” / As a thunderstorm gathered and ended the drought?

Then the lightning flashed once and things started to swirl / And we started evolving toward boys and toward girls

Soon the bugs became fishes and lizards and such / And the moment had come, and it didn’t take much

[] Bob Ryan, acerbic sportswriter for the Boston Globe (back when he was pushed to write better, by Globe sports page competition on the order of Peter Gammons and Leigh Montville). His columns about the Boston Celtics of the 1980s never disappointed; his “cleaning out the desk drawer of the mind” quick-hit pieces still stick with me.

[] Garrison Keillor – not so much when he’s spinning tales of Lake Wobegon, but more when he’s quietly laying out political leanings and personal philosophies in something like his book “Homegrown Democrat”. If I get going on topics like inexplicable politicians, or a lack of common sense on display (or my early writing influences), his voice informs mine.

[] An undeniable influence on my writing has been the curious, humorous, theatre-of-the-absurd turns of phrase created by Douglas Adams. As a high-school freshman nerd, I discovered the radio drama version of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and knew I’d found utter perfection: science fiction that was really, really funny. And English. Adams’ work has been called a cross between “Monty Python” and science fiction. I go back and forth: sometimes I agree; sometimes I think it’s too easy to label English humor as strictly “Monty Python”. But if some weird literary catastrophe happened and all that remained of Douglas Adams’ writing was his spectacular adverbial creations (“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see [the Babel Fish] as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God”), it would be enough.

And then there are a few authors whose writing I would one day like to be able to emulate and incorporate into my writing without being accused of plagiarism!:

[] Molly Ivins, whose Texas drawl came through loud and clear in her political commentary. There are elements of Texan-ness that I have trouble with, but not Ms. Ivins.

[] Harlan Ellison, except I can’t muster up the kind of vitriol he can put into his commentaries when he gets aggrieved (righteously or otherwise); and I can’t invent speculative fiction storylines anywhere near as great as his.

[] Roy Blount, Jr., whose style of writing or speaking I cannot hope to emulate as I am not nearly as Southern as he is (highly recommended is his “Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South”).

[] Bob & Ray‘s quiet lunacy.

[] Raymond Chandler. I’d love to say I can write like he can. I can’t. I’ve tried, and it sounds pale and paltry by comparison. I love the hard-boiled private eye detective fiction sound, but even Garrison Keillor’s “Guy Noir, Private Eye” radio ad libs are better than my finely crafted fake Chandlerisms.

Okay. Navel-gazing over. But if I am to be subjected to compliments about my writing, I must acknowledge the people who helped me get writing, because I must acknowledge that whatever writing style I may have didn’t just spring forth from Zeus’ head. (See, I did retain something from my high school Classical Literature class.)

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May 28, 2011 - Posted by | books, education, journalism, literature, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. This post is so lovely and well-written that I am willing to dismiss the questionable influence of the “Madame S. and the Sharonites” episode on your narrative prowess.

    Comment by hilaryshort | May 28, 2011 | Reply

  2. Much as I appreciate that my name comes to your mind when you remember Food for Thought, I have to add that the play was Rob Houghton’s brain child. I did help him teach the class that came up with it and am proud of the result.

    Comment by DD | May 30, 2011 | Reply

    • By George. Much I as I thought I had properly done my homework — confirming my feeble 1979 memories with actual facts and evidence and pesky things like that … according to the Freelance Press website, “Food for Thought” is indeed authored by Robert Houghton and David Downing. My apologies to Rob, and my desperate hope that the next time he sees me he greets me with something other than an NCIS slap to the back of the head.

      Comment by rhammerton1 | May 30, 2011 | Reply

  3. I was humming in the shower this evening, and for no apparent reason the lyrics in my head were “There are those who thrive/ working nine to five/ fifty weeks of the year”. Google soon led me here. 🙂 Thanks for the shared memories of “Titanic”!

    Comment by Claudia Mastroianni | August 24, 2015 | Reply


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