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Amber Paulen

On Influence and Imitation

Reading Thomas Hardy has been nothing short of illuminating when I can break free from his sublime prose to breath a little. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a book I cannot set down; I wish to devour Tess’s story while basking in Hardy’s words: impossible. I read instead, moderately quick.

I had vague intimations of Hardy’s influence on DH Lawrence and John Cowper Powys before beginning. I still have only intimations, now less vague. From John Cowper Powys:

I recollect reading nearly half of [ Far from the Maddening Crowd ] in one single walk; and, as with all the books I have loved best, its actual substance cardboard, paper, print and the words “by Thomas Hardy,” passed and repassed into the gates against which I leaned, into the tree roots on which I sat, into the pond willows on whose branches I laid my hand, into the road-dust that blew up into my face as I moved forward step by step… — Autobiography

So it was not a small rapture when I discovered a kernel of Tess stolen and placed profusely in Wolf Solent. Over and again Wolf struggles with the paradox, to enjoy or endure his life which seems to have gotten away with him. A phrase, an idea John Cowper Powys imitated word for word.

Tess was no insignificant creature to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life—a life which, to herself who enjoyed or endured it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest of himself.

Imitating one’s influences is an understood condition of writing and learning to write. Whenever I steal directly it is homage rather than malice. But that is to confuse the definitions: no writer ever steals anything as no writer exists wholly unique. Writing is simply regeneration, reformation, recycling of ideas and words and word combinations. Even this process imitates the cycle of matter, the repetition of nature and the billion-year past reuse of stardust to form us human beings.

I have read of writers who refuse to read fiction while they write fiction, in order to preserve the “pureness” of their voice. This rings absurd. It is like asking a lake to be filled by the rains that fall into it, not allowing for the myriad tributaries flowing in from their own gathered strength. There is something so human in our need to tell stories and in our need to repeat them. There are very few original ideas; originality then, is in the dexterity of composition. The best books are imitations, created in our true disguise of individual uniqueness.


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