Saturday, August 31, 2013

On Influences

I recently re-read Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which I first read when I was nineteen, and which I've listed among my top five favorite books ever since. The experience was very interesting.

This is still, of course, a fucking exceptional book. I'd like to make that clear. It's just that coming back to it years later, my relationship with it is very different.

I've talked before about the disproportionate importance we can attach to things that expand our horizons as we cross the threshold of adulthood- I think my example at the time was someone arguing that Grant Morrison's the Invisibles is a revolutionary work of genius that changed the writer's life at seventeen. The Last Unicorn was that for me. It was probably the first thing I read that was postmodern and heavily thematic in a self-referencing way. It was the first thing I can remember reading where the poetry of the language was at least as much the point as the story itself. I read it straight through and then immediately got onto the e-mail (which at the time I was paying by the minute for) and wrote a long, ecstatic letter to my best literary friend about how she had to read this book right now.

In the years since, when I started writing seriously, a lot of the aesthetic sensibilities from this book semi-consciously bled into how I wrote. I know at a conscious level I walked away from it with the idea firmly entrenched that daring metaphors were the awesomest thing ever, but I couldn't say I'd thought more about it than that, specifically. But as I read back through I was constantly cringing as dozens of phrases I'd written over the years came bubbling back up in my mind and I realized how much they were all impersonations of Mr. Beagle's particular style. I'd always claimed this man as an influence, but realizing exactly how much of an influence hit me in that same painful, embarrassing place as pictures from high school.

Luckily most of the stinging examples were older, and the newer ones were things I felt relatively good about- things I felt were mine with an influence, rather than the work of someone looking down at her wristband to remind her the most important thing when writing a sentence was to think "What would Beagle do?".

Because I read the anniversary addition, it was also bundled with interviews and retrospectives from Mr. Beagle, talking about how much he hated writing the novel, and hated the novel itself for about a year after he sold it. He also talked about how organic and discovery oriented his writing was- which is a pretty big departure from what I had imagined, given how strongly its themes run through. He talked about the original draft, which had a unicorn and a demon wandering through the modern world. The edition had the sequel novella "Two Hearts" which I had read before- it was not what I wanted at the time, but I like it quite a bit now. It was strange to take something which I'd put on kind of a pedestal and not only examine it afresh, but see some of the gritty behind the scenes about it. On the level of the work itself, I deeply enjoyed reading the book again. For me personally as a fan of it, the experience was more mixed. I felt kind of shabby and derivative.

Funnily enough, right now I'm working on trying to do a novel length work, and I'd picked up the Last Unicorn because I was worried that I might be unconsciously letting it influence certain aspects of plot and tone. The things I was worried about couldn't be farther from the truth, but I found a lot of ways where it had influenced me more than I had been prepared for.

Growing up in any respect is uncomfortable, and I always look back on the older iterations of myself with embarrassment. I've been thinking a lot recently about the extent to which I am progressing as a writer- it's a mixed extent, certainly- and this held up yet another mirror for me in that process of self-evaluation. Which, like sit-ups, is good for you in the long term but no fun at the time.

But you can't ultimately beat yourself up about it, can you? Well, obviously you can, but you probably shouldn't. We were all kids at some point, messing our pants and putting our fingers firmly up our noses, and I don't think it's entirely different with writing. We get experience. We grow. I feel like I'm slower at it than I should be, and that worries me, but so long as I'm moving forward, I figure it's okay. 


  1. I can't say I was as blown away by The Last Unicorn as you were - I wasn't a very sophisticated reader (still aren't) and I liked my fantasy straightforward and rather overawed with itself - look how magical and wondrous this is, woo! While Peter S. Beagle didn't make getting to the fantastic easy at all, he made you ache and sweat and get dirty for it. Like fantasy as ditch-digging.

    However, there was one artist who I thought captured so much of the magical heart of his story, and I've never forgotten her image of the Red Bull and the Unicorn:

    Susan Seddon Boulet - if you don't know her art, you should check it out. Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff. I plastered my walls with her unicorn pictures for years :)

    And I can't believe The Last Unicorn movie, all spiffed up, was here at the AFI this month - with Peter Beagle introducing it! And I missed it! Curses!

    And congrats on being made an aunt yet again. Always nice :).

    1. That's a fantastic Bull in that image right there.

      Yeah, Mr. Beagle's been on tour with the film now that he's finally getting some of the money from its distribution- there's a comic book out too. I haven't read it, but I've seen some of the images and they were very pretty.

      Yeah, I never really felt like the magic was hard or distant- I would really characterize it as bursting at the seams with magic, but I guess it's fair to say it's a little... cynical? I guess about it's own magicalness. I don't feel like that's exactly the right way to say it, but I think that's what you're getting at?

      If I'm right, I really found that the most charming and impressive aspect.

  2. I read TLU back in High school and thought the style was a bit distant and formal compared to most of the fantasy books I read, but I still enjoyed it. I should probably get it out and reread it now and see if I get the same sense from it as I did then and try to see why Beagle thought it was such a bear to write.

    I'm excited to hear you're working on a novel. Your short stories are really cool.

  3. Hah, I wouldn't be too excited. I'm not very good at novels.