The Role of Angst and Creativity

The Words That Changed Your Life: Discovering What Made You a Writer

The Role of Angst and CreativityFor me, it’s almost become a cliché answer: “I write because stories have always been my language. I write because my very first memory is telling myself a story.”

“Why do you write?” and “What made you a writer?” are two questions I’m ubiquitously asked in interviews. I can respond to those questions in my sleep. I don’t even think about their answers anymore.

And that, as I’m now realizing, is a shame.

As artists, our early influences were more than just the first domino in our journeys. They were more than “just” formative. They were the experiences that shaped us into the people and writers we have become. Sometimes these influences are conscious: some writers can recall a specific book or movie that made them say, “I want to be a writer.” But even in these situations, the subconscious impact is often far deeper and more telling.

Light the dark BookLast week, I talked about how inspired I was by the essay anthology Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. In it, dozens of authors shared what they felt were formative passages in their own early reading, and then expounded on why and how they felt these influences had shaped their artistic journeys.

Editor Joe Fassler explained in his foreword:

I ask working artists (many of them writers) to choose a favorite passage from literature, the lines that have hit them hardest over the course of a lifetime’s reading. Each person looks closely at his or her selection, explains its personal impact, and makes a case for why it matters. Taken together, these pieces offer a rare glimpse into the creative mind at work—how artists learn to think, how they find inspiration, and how they get things done.

Needless to say, I recommend the book. In addition to inspiring last week’s post about the 4 Reasons We Write, it has also prompted me to take a closer look at my own early influences—and to try my hand at choosing and examining a formative passage of my own.

A Journey Through Yourself: The Difficulty in Discovering Your Influences

In Light the Dark, the gathered authors make it look so easy to find your influences. Most of them seemed to know immediately which passage had most impacted them—as if they carried it around in the warm space under their hearts and were overjoyed to carefully pull it out and share it.

During the evenings when I read this book, I often found myself sitting back in puzzlement. What were my early influences? I read Little WomenAnne of Green GablesThe Black StallionTrixie BeldenLittle House on the PrairieSmoky the Cowhorse, and lots and lots of terrible Star Wars novels. Were those my influences? If so, then how… cliché.

Or was the formative influence really something I’d read a little later on when my tastes started to mature? Was it perhaps a favorite author such as Patrick O’Brian? How about the bazillion classic authors I’ve read and loved—Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad? Or was that just brownnosing?

Maybe, as a product of my generation, I was actually more influenced by movies than books. After all, when I made up stories in my childhood, I would call them “my movies.” Maybe it was one of the many westerns I all but memorized—everything from The Magnificent Seven to True Grit to Red River to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Or maybe it was Star Wars after all: I vividly remember the trash-compacter scene from my first viewing when I was ten or eleven. Maybe it was Robin Hood or Indiana Jones or The Great Escape.

Gah. Insanity! And then I was supposed to be able to narrow it down further to one passage that shaped the entirety of my artistic life? It was starting to make me feel less inspired, rather than more.

But then I reached the last essay, Neil Gaiman’s, in which he blithely subverted the whole premise of the book:

…you don’t even necessarily understand [when you’re  young] where all your influences are coming from, or what they can mean, nor should you. They compost down anyway, good influences, no matter how old you are. It’s like when you put the scraps onto your compost heap: eggshells, and it’s half-eaten turnips, and it’s apple cores, and the like. A year later, it’s black mulch that you can grow stuff in. And influences, good ones, are that too. Trying to figure out what’s influenced you is as difficult as taking the black mulch, and saying this used to be half an apple.

Of course.

Trying to make our artistic passion the result of a single influence is like trying to define our lives by a single experience.

Realizing that took the pressure off. I started thinking about the question from another angle. Instead of trying to identify the one single story that started me on my journey, I started thinking about what it is that defines me as a storyteller. What stories am I inevitably telling—and where did they come from? Why am I telling these stories?

So here’s what I came up with. If I have to choose one passage to encapsulate my “creativity, inspiration, and artistic process,” this is what it has to be…

The Light in My Dark: What My Formative Influences Tell Me About My Writing

“Oh my best brother that ever I had!” cried Wallace, in a sudden transport, and kissing his pale forehead; “my sincerest friend in my greatest need. In thee was truth, manhood, and nobleness; in thee was all man’s fidelity, with woman’s tenderness. My friend, my brother, oh would to God I had died for thee!”—Jane Porter, The Scottish Chiefs

When I was maybe six or seven, my dad brought home this big old copy of what some people consider to be the seminal historical novel: Jane Porter’s lushly romantic (and highly imaginative) ode to the roles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the Scottish War for Independence.

For many years, I would have said it was my favorite book. Looking back now, I can tell you it’s historically suspect, blatantly melodramatic, sometimes even silly. But even though I haven’t read it in years, thinking about this book still stirs me—especially the death scene quoted in that passage. I remember absolutely bawling over this scene, which was something I never did, even as a child.

In reading histories of Scotland a few years ago, I was surprised by how vividly it all came back to me. When I think of this war and envision the people who took part in it, the images I see are still those vivid iterations inspired by N.C. Wyeth’s gorgeous illustrations and Jane Porter’s words.

Today, when I decided to pull the book of my shelf to re-read this dimly remembered passage I had chosen, I surprised even myself. In some ways, my choice of this book was random—and my choice of this particular passage even more random. In reading it once again, I was blown away to see so much of myself there in those words.

When I look at the body of work I’ve created over the years—when I think about the stories still in my head waiting to be told—when I examine the stories of others I’m most drawn to and moved by—what I find is that they are inevitably the stories that share the deep archetypal weft of heroic symbolism.

They are stories about brotherhood. They are stories about sacrifice. They are stories about laying down your life for your friends and your cause. They are stories about haunted, scarred loner-leaders. They are stories about extraordinarily gifted people and the inevitability that from those who have much, much will be asked. They are stories about the redeeming worth of relationships.

I mean that’s it. And it’s all right there in that one single passage from one of the earliest stories I can remember.

Even though I went looking for my early influences, I honestly did not see that coming. It’s completely cool and, honestly, a little overwhelming.

It helps me bring into alignment all the many other influences that have marked the roadside of my artistic journey. It all makes a little more sense now: the definitive archetypalism in Star Wars, the loner heroes of John Ford’s idealistic westerns, the thematic depth of Robin Hood’s adventures. Disparate as they are, they are all part of an arrow-straight line pointing me to every story I’ve ever written or, I think, ever will write.

Writing Like You Will Be Someone’s Formative Influence

If you read this blog with any regularity, then you probably know I’m all about the subtext. I’m all about chasing down the hidden, often subconscious, meanings—in stories and also in life. No surprise then that I believe an exploration of your own formative influences is a vastly worthwhile venture. Certainly, my own experience with this little exercise has been not just fun, but enlightening. It’s provided me much food for thought in moving forward with a better understanding of why I’m drawn to write the kind of stories I write.

But here’s another thing it’s made me realize: our stories—yours and mine—have the potential to similarly impact other young readers. In his essay in Light the Dark, Jim Crace wrote:

We should never underestimate what it is that will turn a young person into someone who wants to love literature. Or the young person who wants to make music, or the young person who is attracted to lyric. How are these people formed? They’re not formed by being sent to do MFAs in creative writing. That’s too late. They’re formed by early encounters.

This week, my young niece had her first encounter with one of my own childhood favorites—Disney’s animated Robin Hood. When the film reached the part where Robin Hood apparently drowns, she started weeping and kept on until her mom hurried in to fast-forward to where it’s revealed Robin survives.

Think that’s “just” a story?

Whether she remembers it or not, she just had a formative experience. Will she write about Robin Hood someday? Will she shape her life around stories of self-sacrifice? (Or, I don’t know, maybe just be scared to ever go swimming?) Who knows? But she was shaped, just as our readers can’t help but be shaped whenever they encounter our stories.

Today, I find myself challenged and inspired to carry on the torch. The authors who inspired us gave to each of us a spark. Every time we dig deep and share honestly, every time we put in the due diligence to write with all the clarity and passion we can muster—we are using those sparks to build another fire. We have no idea who will see its light and maybe wander over to sit for a while. We have even less of an idea which of them will catch an ember, tuck it away in that special place beneath their hearts, and carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

But today when you sit down to write, I challenge you to remember: somebody will. Go light the dark.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! If you had to pick one author, who would you choose as the one that made you a writer? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. C.S.Lewis.
    I was so swept away, it was like I was IN THE ROOM with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus as they sipped tea.
    And I really despised Turkish Delight–so much so, all these years later, living in Turkey, I REFUSED to taste any! (Yes, they really do have Turkish Delight)

    Gone With The Wind.
    I was beyond furious over the complex story ending, basically, in one sentence.

    So, between making fantasy so real coupled with the determination of a 14 year old, I set out to rewrite the ending of Gone With The Wind…oh, how naive I was.

    Fantasy Romance is my genre now, though I still hold a grudge against Scarlett for her stupidity, and I always make sure to enjoy an annual cup of tea with Mr. Tumnus.

  2. Joseph Merboth says

    K., ever since your September 25th post “6 Lifestyle Changes,” you’ve gotten so real. I’ve read one after another of your blog posts in the last several months that reach new depths of humility and honesty. I’m learning more about the personhood of being a writer instead of just the process. It’s inspiring and moving at the same time.

  3. Saja bo storm says

    Katie, I just wrote a long post about Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. My tablet went offline before I could post it. So, here’s a condensed version. I just wanted to say that the powerful words terrified me as a young college student fresh out of high school. The poem scarred me as I related to the virginal sisters Laura and Lizzie forced to resist the luscious and tempting fruit of the goblins. It’s a wonderful poem of heroism and sisterhood. Also, a deeper critique about the admonishment of women during the Victorian period.
    I never had the courage to read it again until your post. One of the most memorable lines is “One can lead a horse to water. Twenty can not make him drink.”
    Thank you, Katie. I enjoyed reading it again.

  4. Elizabeth Richards says

    Rosemary Sutcliffe Warrior Scarlet–I read the first chapter in my brother’s literature reader (I must have been desperate) and wanted more. A few months later we moved to a small Army ammunition depot in Germany that was situated in the middle of Celtic archeological sites–from the same time period as Warrior Scarlet. It’s so hard to capture that feeling of looking over a landscape and feeling the generations of stories that were layered there. Other people might see an abandoned pasture, I saw a boy fighting a wolf to defend his flock.

    Other stories came before Warrior Scarlet and thousands after but Rosemary Sutcliffe will always be the standard I yearn to achieve–where a story can pick you up and move you to another time and place. What an amazing experience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve felt that way standing on cliffs out here in western Nebraska and feeling the presence of all the history that crossed these plains.

  5. I appreciate this post a lot. My initial motivations were not terribly pure — I think I wanted to be some kind of artist, in a pretentious sort of way, and I could tell I wasn’t talented enough at painting or music to be really good, in the way I wanted to be really good (and in a way I now believe doesn’t actually matter). Was that really why I got into writing, or was it a real affinity for words and stories and ideas? How much was real passion, and how much vanity? As you point out, it doesn’t matter. All the silly motivations and silly influences have gone into the compost and been transformed into something else. (Kind of like life, generally, and the mysterious workings of grace.)

    Tolkien has been a major influence on my life and my faith, but oddly enough, I’m not sure how much he has directly influenced my writing and stories. My basic feeling of wanting to be inside a story, of seeing how stories could reveal the enchantedness of real life, probably goes back to Anne of Green Gables. But I do believe Tolkien’s commitment to the purity of his work has inspired me.

    And of course Jane Austen. People are funny — life is funny. And her literary descendant Barbara Pym. We are all bundles of infinite dignity and temporary goofiness and folly and sorrow. They saw it and showed it, and I want to do so, too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If I were to bet, I’d say the affinity for stories and words was under it all. Pretension has a way of muddying things up (ask me: I know 😉 ), but the bottom line is always there.

  6. Adrienne Nesiba says

    I don’t know the author, but I believe my earliest influence was the children’s book called,”The Little Matchbook Girl.” It was a tearjerker of a story, but so meaningful to me then.

  7. Max Woldhek says

    I’ve always had stories in my head – part of my Asperger’s – and I used to run around enacting them as a little boy. I guess what pushed me to actually write some of them down was boredom, a vacation where I had nothing to do, and years later, unemployment after graduation: I had to occupy myself with something. Now I get this itching sensation in my skull if I don’t write for a longer period, so I guess there’s no going back. 😛

    As for influences, I rightly can’t tell what had the greatest impact. I read the Lord of the Rings when I was about 11, but it didn’t impress me that much. Other authors who got me really hooked on their work included David Eddings and Susan Cooper, and Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest comic had a huge impact on me. Then there’s the computer RPGs I played as a kid, like the Baldur’s Gate series and Planescape: Torment (still possibly the single greatest video game story ever). Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting grabbed me by the throat and showed no mercy too. You’ve also got the…less child-friendly animated movies I watched when I was little (The Secret of NIMH and Watership Down are not for the faint-hearted seven year old).

    TL, DR: There’s so much that I have no idea which work of fiction was The Big One for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I ran around telling and acting stories full-time as a child. But I never ever thought I’d be a writer. I only started writing because I wanted to record some of my favorite stories before I forgot them. But once I started, I was hooked.

      • Max Woldhek says

        I’d been fantasising about writing down the stories in my head for a long time, but the goblin of discouragement, sneaky **** that he is, sat on my shoulder whispering defeatism, and I couldn’t dislodge him. That is, until I finished my Bachelor’s Thesis. It was the first time I’d written something that long, and it made me think I might actually be able to finish a whole book.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The thing I’ve discovered about experience is that we can’t have it without first experiencing the inexperience. :p Things get easier and the perspective gets clearer the more we do it.

  8. “Light the Dark” is on my wish list now. 🙂 But yesterday my dear writing buddy gave me a wonderful gift: “Daemon Voices. Essays on Storytelling” by Philip Pullman. Have you read it yet? I have only read the preface and skipped through the contents pages, but I already love it.

  9. Chris Rogers says

    This may sound silly, but the first influential book that i can remember is harold and the purple crayon. I started off drawing before trying my hand at storytelling (but a picture is worth a thousand words. I had that down..) After that the novels when worlds collide, after worlds collide, and hyperion stick out predominantly in my mind. The underlying themes that tie those together for me is something i need to think on and may be completely obvious to anyone that has read them but i’m drawing a blank. To then narrow an influence down to a single passage from any one work seems almost impossible.
    Definitely something i need to make time to do..

  10. Forty years ago, I rescued a copy of The Scottish Chiefs from a neglected English classroom library. The teacher encouraged us to take and keep what we wanted, and I can see that treasured copy from where I now sit. But for me, it was the death of beautiful Marion and faithful Halbert that broke my teenage heart. Truly, I pledged when Wallace pledged! Before that though, when I was seven years old, my mother and I used to sit on our horse-hide sofa while I read to her. The book?…chosen by myself from a variety of classics: Le Morte D’Arthur. How I remember the struggle to pronounce the words, to make sense of the syntax, to understand all that had happened in the brevity of Malory’s prose. I cannot express how deep an impression his work made and the life-long love affair I’ve had with “The Matter of Britain” ever since. I read my first Tolkien but a few years afterwards and was ensnared by its Beowulfian depth and yearned to write of my own “secondary world.” From the Professor, I gained inspiration to try my hand at world-building and mythologizing–the story of Beren and Luthien resonated strongly with me. But by far, and fittingly so, it was the words of Malory’s King Arthur and his knights that called me to to take up errantry and become a writer. Maybe one day, with the help of your resources, I’ll become an author too 🙂

  11. Katie Briggs says

    Thank you for exploring and writing this! It sparked the same healthy exercise in my own life, and it is rewarding to consider what has shaped me, too :).


  1. […] “As artists, our early influences were more than just the first domino in our journeys. They were more than “just” formative. They were the experiences that shaped us into the people and writers we have become. Sometimes these influences are conscious: some writers can recall a specific book or movie that made them say, “I want to be a writer.” But even in these situations, the subconscious impact is often far deeper and more telling.” I tend to write stories about Outsiders. Friendship. Family. Going the distance. Self-sacrifice. And probably a whole lot more I can’t think of at the moment. Like Neil Gaiman says in the post, who can say where all our influences come from? Life? Books? Movies? Songs? Stories our parents told us over the years? It all mixes together and comes out on the page. What do you think? […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.