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Shop talk (anything and everything on writing)

Stealing from the best

Flamenco dancer

When I was about 16 or 17 I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Failing that, I wanted to spend my afternoons in faded bedrooms making love to matadors (ok, maybe just the one, darkly handsome matador) and lounging about in bars smoking Gitanes and drinking red wine with, well, Ernest Hemingway, who of course would be writing about my fantastically interesting life.

Coming home from school, I would practise flamenco dancing in my bedroom, although I could never rattle my castanets; or dodging imaginary bulls (which, years later, came in very useful when trying to get served in crowded pubs).

I began to write my schoolwork in short, repetitive sentences.

In geography:

Farms are very big in Australia. In Parramatta, Gweea, Cameera, Cadi, and Memel, there is not much water, but they have many sheep. Often the sheep die. That is because of the water problem.

In history:

Napoleon was unlucky that year. He had stomach problems. It was not good to have stomach problems when fighting with Wellington. Wellington did not have stomach problems.

My teachers didn’t care for it much. I went to the staff room a lot in those days. To see my teachers. But I was not persuaded. If only everybody could write like Hemingway. (Stop it now, ed).

But, of course, the madness passed, and I began to develop a taste for other authors, and copied their style shamelessly too. I loved the way John Steinbeck described things, and discovered if I used his clear, step by step method, that I could put over what I meant really effectively. I tried hard to emulate PG Wodehouse’s effortless style and humour and I was completely seduced by the world weariness of Ian Fleming. And, naturally, being a moody pretentious teenager, I spent a lot of time wandering about casually with Dostoevsky, although we never actually got along.

Bit by bit, all these other authors and many more, have taught me how to write. I’ve taken what I liked from them and mixed it all up until I’ve found a method I’m comfortable with; that is my own voice. But I’m still learning. Still reading, still borrowing.

Who are your teachers?


Picture: Flamenco Gold 1998. Finished painting after a series of preparatory studies. Oil and gold leaf on canvas and glass by Fletcher Sibthorp.

From Creative Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/Flamenco_Gold.

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


43 thoughts on “Stealing from the best

  1. Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Voltaire, Paulo Coelho and John Grisham. sheesh no wonder I’m all over the place.

    Posted by ilyasstory | October 28, 2014, 3:28 pm
  2. ..Steinbeck, right up there for me ., along with Dickens, Ruark, Winston Churchill (writing as well as his maverick-ism), O’hara… LUV THE POST 🙂

    Posted by Seumas Gallacher | October 19, 2014, 10:54 am
  3. Interesting. I wanted to be James Joyce. An interesting juxtaposition.

    Posted by naptimethoughts | October 3, 2014, 1:42 am
  4. Your teachers are inspirational in more ways than one, Elaine. I think you could say my greatest influences have been Fozzie Bear and that guy off the Cillit Bang ads. But I don’t want to be presumptuous.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | October 2, 2014, 9:09 pm
    • Have you been celebrating in advance? You have to think, Tara, that the CB Bloke was only mouthing somebody else’s peerless prose. I looked up one bang and the filth is gone, and Google brought things to me I can never wash away.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 9:44 pm
    • Hahaha! I’m Barry Scott! And as we say in Ireland…. duurty.

      Posted by Tara Sparling | October 2, 2014, 10:11 pm
    • Ok, I’ve been to Wikipedia now. Did you know it’s called Easy off Bang in the US? Really, it is. And, get this, apparently Cillit Bang and Mr. Muscle have been used to clean plutonium stains at the defunct Dounreay nuclear power station in Caithness. Hey, Barry, you’ve got plutonium stains on your trousers. Well we’ll soon have em off with this! Har har. I told you I was feeling giddy. I must have a cup of tea and an oatmeal biscuit.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 10:17 pm
    • Well, thanks. I’ll never get to sleep now for thinking about Barry Scott’s nuclear nether regions. But whoa! Slow down there. An oatmeal biscuit? Don’t be going mad there now, it’s only Thursday.

      Posted by Tara Sparling | October 2, 2014, 10:29 pm
    • I had three. I know, I promised not to. But they spoke to me, and I ate them.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 11:52 pm
  5. I always wanted to write like Dylan Thomas; not just poems, but prose and dialogue and stuff. I once wrote a play and someone said it sounded like an Irish nun from Tralee had just cross over into Wales. None-the-less, I think Dylan Thomas taught me to always LISTEN as you write.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | October 2, 2014, 6:16 pm
    • Yes, I’m with you absolutely on Dylan Thomas. His description of snow, like torn up Christmas cards, in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, is unbeatable.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 9:41 pm
  6. I do crime fiction with a foodie bent. So, believe it or not, one of my biggest inspirations for hardboiled prose happens to be a legendary food scientist and food writer called Edouard De Pomiane. See http://wp.me/p3ZaC0-dj

    Posted by Irish writer Mel Healy | October 2, 2014, 5:52 pm
  7. I think it’s very true that your writing style is greatly effected by whatever author you happen to be reading at the time. Especially when you binge read like me >.< So when I'm ploughing through Agatha Christie books I end up adopting her style and when I'm binging on Terry Pratchett, I unconsciously adopt his style :p

    Posted by Sally | October 2, 2014, 5:08 pm
  8. I was going to be Dickens when I grew up. He described one small character as having ‘undeniable boots’ which fitted to a T the youngest lad of a neighbour of mine. You always knew where he was.

    Posted by Jools | October 2, 2014, 5:03 pm
    • Undeniable boots – I love that. They cd be undeniable because they’re so big, or outrageous. Like those Doc Martens Elton John wears in Tommy.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 5:29 pm
  9. Like you, in high school I was a big Hemingway fan (and felt quite sure I would become a master of literary analysis with what I considered to be my entirely unique and scandalous interpretation of that raised baton at the end of The Sun Also Rise). Then came Fitzgerald. Which reminds me that recently my daughter reported one of her friends answered “Mrs. Fitzgerald” on a test question, “What was the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife?” Then I discovered Vonnegut and shortly thereafter John Irving (talk about game changers). I also suspect I was one of the only teenage boys to have been reading Anne Tyler. From there, the list goes on and on. I have no doubt that, at different times, I tried to mimic all of them when writing. Thanks for reminding me!

    Posted by David Pandolfe | October 2, 2014, 12:44 pm
    • Love the Mrs Fitzgerald answer, that student should definitely get a mark for quick thinking. Reminds me of that TV quiz when a contestant was asked to name a bird with a long neck and he answered, ‘Naomi Campbell’. Me too with Vonnegut and Irving, but I haven’t read Anne Tyler. I’ll go and check her out.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 1:20 pm
  10. Leon Uris was an early favorite of mine, long-winded as he was. I read more non-fiction though than I did fiction so style was less a factor on my writing than evidence-based material. 😦

    Posted by lbwoodgate | October 2, 2014, 12:10 pm
    • Isn’t that funny? I was thinking about Exodus this morning. Everything has a style you can borrow from, even non fiction. Dictionaries are great for teaching concision. JRR Tolkien wrote a lot of the entries for the Oxford Dictionary, including the one for walrus.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 12:24 pm
    • “Everything has a style you can borrow from, even non fiction. Dictionaries are great for teaching concision.”

      Ah yes. So true. I was also a big fan of encyclopedias. 🙂

      Posted by lbwoodgate | October 2, 2014, 1:00 pm
    • Trouble with encyclopaedias is that one thing leads to another and you get lost in them for hours.

      Posted by elainecanham | October 2, 2014, 1:23 pm
  11. I’m always shocked at how teachers at school usually fail to see the uniqueness in pupils’ writing. Unless you go with the flow, teachers often dismiss anything that is more original, interesting or creative.
    I understand that at school we need to learn how to write, but a little bit of novelty never hurt anyone.

    Keep writing!

    Posted by Nicholas C. Rossis | October 2, 2014, 11:54 am
  12. Kindly keep your castanets to yourself madam, this is a family blog. Though in private of course………….
    I was told my style was reminiscent of PG Wodehouse but heaven knows what they thought of the books. I did have a taste for the great man.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | October 2, 2014, 11:41 am
  13. I think that brilliant factual titbit about Napoleon’s stomach problems and their effect on world history is telling, and shows you have the eye for the crucial details which can change everything. Possibly when he said “Not tonight Josephine” he was referring to a challenging plate of eggs benedict rather than a game of personal gymnastics. You can see how your ruminations and reflections are always an inspiration to one living on the very edges of sanity. Thank you for another lovely read, and a small piece of your personal history 🙂

    Posted by Peter Wells aka Countingducks | October 2, 2014, 11:23 am

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