Columns > Published on July 18th, 2017

Inspiration vs. Influence: Using What We Know

There’s no right or wrong way to be inspired, but there might be a wrong way to be influenced.

When I was 17, I worked as a bag boy at a grocery store. My friend Zack Buckingham worked with me. We would stand around judging the customers—pointing out the pretty women, ugly women, the weird shaped men, the decrepit and how they moved. Once a boy about our age entered the place and I said, “I bet his favorite band is Weezer.” I guess it was meant as an insult. Zack said, “Yeah, but you can’t help what you like.”

As writers, we operate in closed systems. We take in all that we can—books, movies, music, experiences—and we retool these things as content. We can only refurbish what we’ve been exposed to, and we can only draw upon the information we make it a priority to remember.

For the longest time—and still today really—there existed entities who believe that some material is worthy of homage and some material should be forgotten forever. This is a colonial notion. The idea that there are canonical works to be repackaged, plot lines to be re-conceived generationally. It’s why Paul Atreides saves the day. And Luke Skywalker saves the day. And Jesus saves the day. And Beowulf saves the day. And Penelope is beset by suitors. And the princess is in the other castle. And Zelda is in the other castle. And Marvel hasn’t made a stand alone Black Widow.

I once wrote a book called Motherfucking Sharks, and people compared it to Sharknado.

I have never seen Sharknado.

Here is the opening scene to Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God:

They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truck bed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinned and gesturing to the others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.

Here is the opening scene to Tom Cooper’s The Marauders:

They came like specters from the dark maw of the bayou, first ghostly light in the fog, then the rasp of a motor: an aluminum powerboat scudding across lacquer-black water. From a distance the figures looked conjoined, Siamese twins. As the boat drew closer the bodies split in two under the moth-flocked floodlights. One stood fore, the other aft: the twin brothers Reginald and Victor Toup. When they were kids even their mother had trouble telling them apart. That was long ago, half their lives, and now their mother was dead. Shot through the temple in New Orleans's Roosevelt Hotel before their father turned the gun on himself.

The McCarthy book is clearly the source material in some way. But in what way? Does it cheapen The Marauders or make it stronger?

Here is a scene from the movie Terror in a Texas Town:

[video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBoy7piXtPM align:center]

Here is a scene from Motherfucking Sharks.

Pete stands dumbfounded. The sun is high and angry, and the gore of the aftermath shines irrationally like a gem. There’s a glitter to the butchering. The puddles, the slick bones, the hung flesh, the wobbled away eyes.

Black birds are hoisted upon everything like flight-gifted rot, tearing scattered death into smaller bits which they fumble ineptly while seeking solitude from their brethren birds.

The homes and buildings, never entirely well put together, are busted and battered from the ungainly patterns of the sharks’ feeding frenzies. Splinters of timber are tossed with the bone bits, the debris of destruction like a gravel of death.

Crick walks to his wagon and plucks a harpoon from the bunch of them. “Ain’t a pretty sight is it?” he asks Pete whose back is to him.

Pete turns in awe. “How’d you get out?” he asks.
“Magic,” says Crick.


Pete’s eyes and the blade of the harpoon leveled at him. He reaches for his pistol, but as he does, Crick slings the harpoon, and before Pete has unholstered the gun, he is impaled by the weapon, which lifts him from the ground and drives him back, stapling him against the wall of the sheriff’s building, where he dangles by the heart upchucking blood down his chest.

The first sentence of Ernest Hemingway’s “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.

The first sentence of Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds:

The war tried to kill us in the spring.

The first sentence of Phil Klay’s “Redeployment”:

We shot dogs. Not by accident.

When I went to get these sentences, to make some kind of point with them, I was certain they were all nearly the same. I was certain they all were shaped the same way, strained from the same place.

But now that they’re here, it seems to me that they are three sentences from stories about war, and that I have created in them a kind of pattern that is quite possibly not there at all. I think we all do this. We assume a thing is based on other things. 

Remember, we are operating in closed systems. 

Back in high school, I liked Weezer too. I thought the Blue Album was one of the most fun things I’d ever heard. I’ve listened to it as much as I’ve listened to any album from the 90’s. I don’t know why I thought Weezer being your favorite band was such a bad thing. Maybe I didn't. Who knows?

Do what you want. Like what you want. Repackage how you want. Fuck it.

People will have problems with it. Other people will love you for it. Others won’t see it at all. You won’t even exist to them.

All of these things are okay.


Want to learn more? Check out Brian's class: A NOVELLA APPROACH:

About the author

Brian Allen Carr splits his time between Indiana and Texas. His first novel is coming out with SOHO in 2017. He is the winner of a Wonderland Book Award and The Texas Observer Story Prize. His story "Whisper to Scar" was adapted as Weightless, directed by Jaron Albertin.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Freeimages.com Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Learning | Free Lesson — LitReactor | 2024-05

Try Reedsy's novel writing masterclass — 100% free

Sign up for a free video lesson and learn how to make readers care about your main character.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: