My Personal Set of Mistakes

If you’ve ever watched the extras on the DVD of The Aristocrats (and you really, really should), you’ll have seen Kevin Pollack’s bit where, as well as doing the world-class Christopher Walken impersonation that made it into the final cut, he does another take in the style of Albert Brooks, and afterwards talks about how he’s funnier when he’s being Brooks than he is when he’s being himself. I get that a bit when I read or hear work by someone who’s faster or smarter than me – for a little while afterwards it feels like my brain’s taken on their style and I end up somehow being quicker or cleverer than I actually am, if that makes sense.

…I’d physically shrink to the size of a child’s fist.

The other day I listened to this Caitlin Moran interview, and hearing her talk a mile a minute to Tim Minchin I could actually feel my thinking accelerate. Briefly, I imagined what would happen if she and I ever conversed and we got into some sort of a feedback loop where I talk faster and she talks faster and I talk faster and eventually the conversation just becomes a high-pitched keening that future generations have to play back slowed down to make sense of. Light bends around us and existence flickers and reconfigures itself as our dialogue generates a sort of vocal Large Hadron Collider that causes the spontaneous creation of world-ending miniature black holes, rendering everything and everyone you’ve ever loved to drifting, lonely atoms. “The Aristocrats!”

(As appealing a fantasy as that is, in actuality my personality tends to expand or contract to fill the gaps left by those around me. I have been in social groups where I was the outgoing one, but by and large I’m surrounded by people with bigger presences than mine, to whom I have taken pride in playing the time-honoured role of Straight Man. Paired with Caitlin Moran, I’d physically shrink to the size of a child’s fist.)

I’ve been thinking about what influences me, especially when I write. I’m quite sure I could harness my tendency towards mimicry by deliberately reading or listening to someone I like then immediately setting to writing once my head’s fizzing with their style, but that feels somehow like forgery. Better to just present an amoebic conglomeration of all of my influences in more-or-less reverse chronological order, which I gather is how everyone else does it – after all, “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources,” which is a quote I just made up now myself.

Someone – I think it was comic book creator Erik Larsen, but I could be wrong – said that style is just your own personal set of mistakes; the specific ways in which you fail to be perfect. I try to keep my pattern of stylistic theft unique to me, although sometimes one influence will bubble more closely to the top than the others – every now and then on this blog I’ve written something and thought “OK, that’s Charlie Brooker – I am 100% aping Charlie Brooker right there”*. Then there’s Garth Ennis (mostly when I’m swearing, although I spent a fair bit of the late 90s unconsciously writing in a dodgy Irish accent) and of course Warren Ellis. Occasionally I’ll affect his “horrible bastard” voice, which I do kind of half-heartedly since I’m not anything like a horrible bastard, so I can’t really pull it off. I can’t really deliver Caitlin Moran’s manic positivity either, but experiencing it always puts me in the mood to be creative.

If I had to point to a single piece of writing that influenced me more than any other, though, it’d be this: When I was a kid – probably not much more than 10 – I read a Marvel comic that had a “fill-in-the-blanks” style interview with one of the writers or artists at the back. I forget who was replying; all I remember is their answers. Basically they were just a complete smartarse, giving answers that technically fit the question but had nothing to do with its intent – “Q: The last movie I saw was… A: 90 minutes long. Q: The last book I read was… A: $8.50.” and so on. Thinking back on it now, it comes off as annoying and self-indulgent, but at the time it completely opened my eyes to how humour and language can work. So much of what I write today comes down to “what’s the obvious thing to write at this moment; what’s the usual way of putting this? OK, now do something else, just to fuck with it.” Thank you, anonymous Marvel staffer – your name may have been lost to the mists of time, but your spirit lives on in the blog of some guy somewhere.

I can’t really put a finger on my cinematic influences – when it comes to movies I just regurgitate the various tropes that a lifetime of couch-potatoing has infused me with. That’s not entirely true – Purple was specifically based on Look Around You and the Friendface ad from The IT Crowd, and I’d have much less success making ten second films if I hadn’t watched everything 5secondfilms.com has done – but mostly it’s just “I know what movies are like, so… do that.”

I don’t have that approach to writing – I try to be more of a “craftsman”/”wanker” and actually think about which word to use when and why. Weird, then, that at the age of 37, I still have no idea how to write a decent ending to a blog post. Look at this concluding paragraph for instance – it just kind of trails off and gom flimp mfffggghhh.

*In fairness to myself, Charlie Brooker has been on an influence on me from before I can remember. It wasn’t until recently that I read his Wikipedia entry and realised that he’d had a hand in just about every bit of media I’d enjoyed since childhood, starting with Oink! in the 1980s.

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