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COMMERCIAL NOTE: My Grammar for Writers course is 30% off during Compass Classroom's back-to-school sale. There's a DVD edition and an online edition. (Sale ends tomorrow, August 7.)
Speaking of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,
 it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.
I think of this remark whenever people ask writers about their "influences." Writers aren't always aware of their most important influences. Their answer will always be incomplete because they can only speak to their conscious influences--to the writers that they are trying to be influenced by, that they hope to be influenced by. As Tolkien says, everything you observe, think, or read goes onto the compost heap that decomposes into a humus that ultimately nourishes new life. 

I've got a big leaf pile in my back yard. One thing I have learned from digging humus is that it isn't really humus until you can no longer tell from looking at it that it used to be leaves. Its old life has to be forgotten.

When I was in elementary school, we used to collect pretty leaves, put them between sheets of wax paper, and run an iron over them. (Do schoolchildren still do this?) It's a good way to preserve a leaf as-is, but a leaf pressed between sheets of wax paper doesn't have the potential to give life to something new. A leaf that decomposes to leaf-mould does.

I'm probably mixing metaphors here, but if you think too much and too consciously about your influences, you may find yourself stuck in imitation mode. You can end up like a grade-schooler drawing a picture of a leaf preserved in wax paper. 

When The Secret of the Swamp King came out, a reviewer remarked that I was obviously influenced by Mark Twain, and especially Huckleberry Finn. I was indignant. I hadn't spent ten minutes thinking about Huckleberry Finn while I was writing The Secret of the Swamp King. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the reviewer was right. Of course I was influenced by Huckleberry Finn. I love that book; and the fact that I wasn't consciously thinking about Huck Finn while I was writing doesn't mean I was free from its influence. There's a whole lot of Mark Twain in the leaf-mould of my mind. 

I started thinking about all this because I'm revisiting Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers for the first time in about thirty years. I have been astonished to realize how much that book shaped me as a writer. I would have never listed Charles Dickens as an "influence" on my work. But I can point to little things in all four of my novels that have Dickens's fingerprints all over them. I'm realizing what an arbitrary question it is to ask a writer to name his or her influences. As it turns out, I don't know who my influences are. Or perhaps I should say, my influences are everybody I've ever read.

Your unique voice is shaped by everything that goes on the compost heap of the mind. Those conscious influences that you value so highly? Throw them onto the heap too, and let them decompose into something no longer recognizable, something that is mixed and mingled with everything else in a combination unlike the one in anybody else's mind.

Upcoming Events

This week on The Habit Podcast

Karen Swallow Prior is the author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. In this episode she talks with Jonathan about the instructive power of fictional worlds to shed light on our own, how fiction can teach us to love our enemies, and joy as a courageous act of imagination.

You can listen wherever you get your podcasts. And if you'll take a minute to subscribe, rate and review, it will help other listeners find The Habit Podcast.

This weekend is the last Rabbit Room on the Road for 2019. I'll be speaking with my colleagues from the Rabbit Room at the Great Homeschool Convention in Jacksonville, Florida. Whether you're a homeschooler or not, Rabbit Room on the Road is an affordable way to get a couple of days of Rabbit Room goodness--four sessions, a panel discussion, a concert by Andrew Peterson, and a Slugs and Bugs concert by Randall Goodgame.
Find out more details here.
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