Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An Ode to Influence

When I spoke yesterday of two teachers who were an influence, it got me contemplating who - and what - have made me the writer and reader I am.

Everyone has a story about This Particular Teacher or That Particular Book that changed their life. I can't say that I had Click Moments during the times I'm about to talk about, but hindsight has made me realize they're all pieces of the puzzle. Even the bad bits.

For as long as I can remember, I was encouraged to read by my parents. My bookshelves before age 12 were packed with Famous Five, Trixie Belden, and Nancy Drew. Between ages 13 and 15 I favoured "Sweet Dreams" and Sweet Valley High. Bleurgh, I'm so glad I lost interest in YA romance - I have a hazy recollection of being annoyed with the protaganists being waffly, giggly and intent on "first kisses", and if I was pressed to pick a favourite SVH twin, it was Elizabeth because she was far more practical and smart. I preferred the Five's George because she kept up with the boys, and Nancy Drew because she was pretty AND smart, and had ADVENTURES!

In fifth form, when I turned 15, I had a teacher who not only introduced me to Science Fiction, but also actively encouraged our class to write it. Trevor Blakeley, THANK YOU. In a girls school environment that seemed to think 18th and 19th-century literature was the be-all and end-all for "good girls" to read, being handed Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonflight" was the beginning. It started my passion for science fiction, and I've been a big McCaffrey fan ever since.

Fifth Form was the year I excelled in English, because the curriculum we were being taught was diverse and RELEVANT to young women in the late 80s. I still have fond memories of my class acting out scenes from Dragonflight. I did F'lar's fight with Fax. Two of the girls performed the birthing scene - it was hilarious but imbued with a gravitas all at the same time, the two girls performing with straight faces all the way through.

We also studied television production and magazine publishing that year. It was so much fun. I was rather a lazy student - tending to cruise if no one was mentoring my work - and I didn't realize how much impact the Fun of the year had on my work until I got my end of year results. I was in the top percentile. Because of this mark, I was put into an extra-curricular English class the next year that explored poetry and creative writing, but I was unsure as to why I was there - I didn't think I had the writing smarts *sigh*.

At least this extra class kept me sane, because it all turned to mush in sixth and seventh form, and I ended High School with average English scores. Hilariously, I learned more about English literacy and sentence structure through taking French - I've often wondered why my English teachers took it for granted that we were "supposed to know" this stuff, I really could have done with more grounding in the basics of literacy, essay and creative writing.

My English teachers these last two years were competent, but not overly encouraging. That encouragement was saved for the girls who were following the Bursary option. I had no intention of going to University (one of my first rebellions). Despite not needing Bursary, I still enjoyed English, but my last two years of High School English were a huge disappointment. To this day I can still recall two of the mind-numbing books I had to read - "Far From the Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy, and "Sons and Lovers" by DH Lawrence. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but after having read "Dragonflight", the depiction of women in these books made me bang my head against my school desk. To this day, the only use these books have been to me is answering a question while watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire".

The irony of it all is that I eventually did go on to get a tertiary qualification, but it was on my own terms. So, to my seventh form English teacher who said I would be nothing without Bursary, stick that. I was something before I did my tertiary education as an adult, and I am something after.

Coming back to literacy and writing, I did have a fabulous English teacher in third form, Ms Angus. I have fond memories of this powerhouse of a woman - five foot nothing, with incredibly long black hair, and possibly the first feminist I had ever encountered. She was tough, but fair. She taught us about poetry and encouraged us in creative writing. In fact, I recall doing a lot of creative writing in her class, including writing the script for the unmade BBC version of John Christopher's Tripods finale (I liked the TV show, including "Sapphire and Steel", "Battlestar Galactica" and "Doctor Who", but my love for Science Fiction wasn't realized then), some weird fanfic thing involving Indiana Jones and Yoda riding four-wheeler motorbikes down the Tree of Knowledge into hell, and rewriting "Return of the Jedi" so that Leia was the hero. She said they were..."interesting".

THANK YOU, Ms Angus. I wish I'd turned my brain on earlier and taken more of your classes.

Another aspect of my High School writing education involved Media Studies. Peter Olliver, my Media Studies teacher, encouraged me to be a copywriter, and this is where I got my start in radio. There's always an aspect of "What If" and I've always wondered what would have happened if I'd gone with my original idea of being a features journalist - another thing I kick myself over for because of my laziness, I found shorter form writing "easier". Gah!

After High School, my influences turned towards particular writers and books. I studied the literary short form on my own time for a while, and Katherine Mansfield made an impression on me as not only a New Zealand writer, but as a woman writer.

My love of dragons is heavily inspired by not only Anne McCaffrey, but also Melanie Rawn's Sunrunner series. Tad Williams' "Otherland" quartet opened my eyes to contemporary fantasy and cyberpunk. And Raymond E. Feist's "Magician" and Empire Trilogy with Janny Wurts are still some of my favourite fantasy epics.

My tastes have changed over the years, and I have gravitated away from the repetition of farm-boy-makes-good epic fantasy to harder Science Fiction. I also prefer strong female characters.

However, I can't pinpoint the time where I decided "hey, I could write that too" - it was a gradual thing that I didn't take seriously at first. I'm not even sure why I started writing short romance in my late teens. I do remember the surprise at getting a cheque in the mail for it, and thinking "I can make money writing!". I thought dragons and female science fiction writers were cool, and since it was primarily a "boys occupation" (hey, I was still young and stupid back then, mmkay?!) I had to be obtuse and give it a try too.

To the teachers and writers mentioned here - thank you for being part of what I am.

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