Just as musicians credit their musical influences, writers, too, have literary inspirations who help them discover and shape their unique voice.
At a White House event for poets in 2011, Billy Collins said to students about finding your voice:
You’re searching for the poets who make you jealous…you’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous…And then copy them.1
Billy himself was influenced by the work of Wallace Stevens—I suppose he would say he was furiously jealous of him.
Anne Lamott’s Seemingly Effortless Prose
Author Shauna Niequist openly mentions the influence of Anne Lamott on her work.
The first time I read Anne Lamott, I thought, “Is this allowed? People can write like this and it gets published?”
I laughed at her sometimes-crass and often sarcastic style. She opened the door to a whole new way of writing, with honesty and sass. While hers was not exactly my style, I admired the conversational tone—the seemingly stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas—that, upon close examination, were carefully crafted.
That skill to make her work seem like it effortlessly spilled onto the page but was actually carefully constructed?
That made me furiously jealous.
Annie Dillard’s Literary Craftsmanship
My friend and co-author Charity Singleton Craig has mentioned Annie Dillard’s impact on her. She frequently quotes her and I sense hints of that literary genius in my friend, as well as in Dillard.
I read Annie Dillard in my early 20s and wondered, “What is this?” I liked it, but I didn’t “get it.” I didn’t understand what she was doing.
But I saw that she stitched her work together with precision using the tools of a literary craftsman. And that, I admired.
That made me furiously jealous.
Madeleine L’Engle’s Bridges of Trust, Love, and Hope
As a child, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Whether I voiced it or not, I know I wondered, “How did she do that?”
At that time I didn’t want to write in that style or genre, but she led us to trust, love, and hope through the delight of quirky characters. I was thrilled how intimately she connected with her reader—with me. I was grateful at the time.
Now, as an adult who writes, I’m furiously jealous. I want to create bridges of trust, love, and hope, as well.
Scott Russell Sanders’ Unpretentious Midwestern Truth
Charity and I attended a lecture by Scott Russell Sanders. In my notebook, I scribbled notes. Then I leaned back and listened. Finally, I wrote, “I want to write like that” on the page of my notebook. I tilted the page toward Charity to show it to her. She nodded.
She could see I was furiously jealous.
He writes about the Midwest, where I’m from, so I’m always impressed with how he brings it to life. His work connects with me in the familiar references of trees and rivers and birds. He names them and I know them.
He makes creative choices seem less mysterious than Dillard and more accessible. He’s conversational in some ways but not curmudgeonly like Anne Lamott. When I read him, I think, “Hey, I could try that.”
He’ll tell stories, create scenes, and introduce a theme, a phrase, a word. He presses in, gently, a little more—labyrinthine at times and progressively, sequentially, other times.
I want to write like that.
He’s unpretentious. I can tell that the ideas and stories he shares on the page are true. When I met him at that event with Charity, it was clear: he is who he seems to be on the page.
That’s who I am and want to be, too, in my writing.
I want to be like that.
What Writers Make You Furiously Jealous?
When you say about a writer or author “I want to write like that,” that’s a creative influence.
When a writer’s work makes you furiously jealous, that’s a creative influence.
When you think, “Hey, I could try that!” that’s a creative influence.
Make a list of all the people whose work makes you furiously jealous—maybe even make a list of the work itself.
What do I love about this piece?
How is its sound, topic, and style appealing to me?
Why does it speak to me?
What about it could I learn from it?
How could I emulate it without plagiarizing?
Study that work.
Pick apart that prose.
Underline and circle and copy out sentences from that work. Figure out how they did it. Because writers who make you furiously jealous are your best mentors.
And as you study them—as they mentor you—like Billy said, they’ll lead you to your own authentic voice.
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- The. “Poetry Student Workshop at the White House.” YouTube, YouTube Video, 11 May 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVIOKLXK9uY&t=1870s. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023.