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.
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.Jonathan Rogers
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.
This piece originally appeared in The Habit, a weekly letter about writing from Jonathan Rogers. If you’d like letters like these delivered directly to your inbox every week, then click here to sign up.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.