We learn how to write by listening, connecting, and responding to what we read.
Every time I read something, I learn about my own writing. Studying improvisation helps me understand this connectivity (I recommend reading The Art of Is, by violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch). What a musician does by listening and playing an instrument together with someone else is not that different from what a writer does when they pay attention to what they read, and then write with those three important elements of improv: listening, connecting, and responding.
I like to think about my books as if they were musicians, playing with each other.
If you keep an Influence Journal, you have a place to put your focus, and you can practice articulating what you are learning about our own writing through influence.
How to Keep Your Own Influence Journal: Tutorial
You will need: Your current reading list and bookshelf, a small blank notebook (for your Influence Journal), your daily writing practice notebook, and a few good pens.
Time: 30–45 minutes
Part 1: Listening
1: Start by listing the last five books you’ve read (all genres, including cookbooks, self-help, poetry, thrillers, etc).
2: List five books that you loved as a child: children’s lit/YA.
3: List five books that you love timelessly — the ones you keep by your bed, gift to people you love, and keep as talismans on your shelf.
4: List five books you wanted to throw at the wall — books you gave away after reading, or books you stopped reading because you didn’t like them.
(about 10 min total)
Part 2: Connecting
Pick one title from each of your four lists. Put an asterisk next to these titles.
Now you’re going to make easy fluid notes on what you wish to absorb from these four titles.
How have they influenced you, and/or how would you like them to influence you?
* Your curiosity teaches you something about what you want to write about next.
* Your reverence teaches you something about your values and essential nature.
* Your admiration teaches you something about your own strengths.
* Your repulsion teaches you something about your disowned superpowers.
Write the title of that first book as an anchor, to start. Then use one of the following three prompts:
- My writing loves this book because…
- This book wants me to know that I can…
- This book showed me how I could…
You can also just jot down your own notes and come up with your own prompts. The point is to put into words the lesson you want to absorb.
Part 3: Responding
Choose one note you’ve made, one lesson you’re learning from one of those books — something that makes you feel excited. Something that, when you put it down in words, you felt a sense of possibility open up.
Write this down for yourself as a directive. In other words, create an instruction/assignment for yourself. For instance: “Try writing in second person point of view” or “Have more fun with it” or “Make your chapters super short, like only one page each.”
Whatever it is — pick something concrete that you’d like to try in your own writing.
Now, put your Influence Journal down, and pull out your writing practice notebook.
Try your assignment! Depending on what your directive is, you might take ten minutes to do an experimental freewrite, or you might take ten minutes to sketch out a possible structure, or write about something thematic.
An Influence Journal isn’t meant to be a collection or a challenge, like “My 100 books a year” or some other productivity game. This is to be used with curiosity, more like a dream journal — but for your writing.
You may not even go back to the journal entries. The improvisation happens when you pay attention, connect, and respond. As soon as you write this stuff down, you’re doing the learning, you’re allowing the influence. You don’t have to study or memorize anything. This happens as you keep the journal!
Photo credit: Rafael Leão on Unsplash.
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