Writing to My Influences: Six Months On

Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. It was necessary to use pen and paper because his publisher didn’t provide an e-mail address. I enjoyed the process so much that it sparked off a project to write to 10 other people who have influenced me.

Six months have now passed since that project. I haven’t received a response from any of them, but I didn’t ask for one; I merely wanted to express my thoughts on their work. At least I can be reasonably certain the letters did reach their respective destinations as none have been returned to sender.

English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called ...
English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called a air letter, the modern transformation of the letter sheet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have no plans to repeat this project, but if I did, I’m uncertain whether I would do anything differently.

The most difficult letters were to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel because they were childhood influences rather than current ones. Yet I’m glad I did because, as 2016 has shown, nobody will be around forever. Conversely, I fear I might have scared off Andrea Gibson as that ran to four handwritten A5 pages. Given another chance, I might have boiled it down to its essentials, and I acknowledged this point within the letter itself.

There is one side benefit. To carry out the project, I needed suitable writing paper so I bought a notepad with tear-out pages. On the odd occasion when I’ve needed to write other letters and notes over the last six months, it’s been ideal.

I do quite often write on paper even if I’m not composing a letter. This entry, for instance, began life as handwriting in a notebook; I wasn’t in a hurry and it’s more portable than a laptop, plus it slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pencil. When it’s finally put on computer, it undergoes its first edit. If you’re accustomed to using a computer, I recommend the method.

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Immediacy.

Sometimes an idea for a piece strikes after hearing about a topical event. Last week, for instance, I posted a poem I wrote on the day of the solar eclipse. Back in November, I was also inspired to write a short story prompted by the BBC’s coverage of the Ferguson riots. Since last week’s entry was posted, the world has been talking about the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps. That also inspired a poem in the same form as the eclipse one.

Neither the Ferguson nor the Germanwings pieces have been posted online as I might send them to a publisher in the future. I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for their contents, which I discuss later on.

When writing a response to current affairs soon after they happen, the details are fresh in everyone’s minds as they’re analysed in the papers and on TV. However, the danger is that specific incidents from the wider event are sometimes forgotten as soon as a week after they occur; in some cases, the entire event might not survive in people’s memories. It’s hard to tell which events might stick around and which won’t. The piece you’ve written in response might therefore contain details that need to be explained in future readings.

Regarding the three pieces in the first paragraph, my solution to this problem was not to focus on the incident itself, but the thoughts and feelings generated by it. To find the universal truth, if you will. It’s not necessary to know that the eclipse took place in March 2015, nor that anything happened in Ferguson, nor that a certain plane crashed in a certain place.

The alternative is to make the piece self-contained, giving the reader enough of an insight about the event for them to understand why you’ve responded to it in a particular way.

A good example comes from the Billy Joel hit We Didn’t Start the Fire. In the lyrics, he makes reference to around 100 world events that happened between his year of birth (1949) and the song’s release (1989).

Many of the earlier events, such as Bob Dylan’s career and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had already stayed in the public consciousness. However, a modern listener might wonder the meanings behind Hypodermics on the shore and Rock-and-roller cola wars in the late 1980s, as these haven’t been widely retained in our collective memories. There’s no way Joel could have known this, of course, nor that the Berlin wall – after having its construction noted in the song – would be knocked down just two months after its release.