Your Literary Heritage

Gustav Klimt’s “Stoclet Frieze” 1909

Something I’ve always been fiercely proud of about my family is it’s deep-rooted ancestry. A few years ago, my father endeavored to collect what he could of our lineage and compile it in a book. What resulted was a record of my heritage that, for me, brought to light all the people who had led me to where I am today.

I was proud to learn of the strength of my roots. Knowing the lives, hardships, joys, and experiences of my family encouraged me to push onward and stake out a fortune and future for myself.

In the same way you, as a writer, have a literary heritage. It is comprised of all the authors, poets, screenwriters, journalists, and dabblers in the written word who have come before you. They are a lengthy line with an eternal oeuvre of work, going all the way back to the days of the first cuneiform scribbled on clay tablets. The limbs branch off to the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, the gospels and the Quran, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the letters of soldiers entrenched in the Argonne, and even the listicles trickling their way through your newsfeed (though I would consider the latter an unwanted stepchild of the rest).

Many of these works remain, their influences lingering in your bloodstream, traces of DNA in your ink-stained veins. Like the whole of human heritage, you can trace portions of this vast library to you in particular.

This is your personal literary heritage, your “literary tree,” if you will. It includes the works that have influenced you as a writer, that you were raised on, that have stayed with you through the years. Everyone has one; most can find its elements arranged on a bookshelf somewhere nearby.

For me, it includes J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien — the first authors whose works I read religiously. Fantasy brought me into the world of writing, whereas in later years, reality tied me to it. Of late my tree has grown to include Ayn Rand, Joseph Heller, and J.D. Salinger, as well as Wes Anderson and Diablo Cody (I’m counting screenwriters here too).

From my tree I draw a good deal of influence; though I value the originality of my ideas, I know that a lot of what I write has traces of what I read. Climbing through the branches helps me discover what I like to write about; if I write what I want to read, it’s fair to say I’ve done my job.

I also use it as a source of motivation. When I gaze up at the many works that have inspired me to write, I think of the hours the authors poured into them. I think of the sleepless nights pondering plot, the middays drooling over drinks and scribbling out notes, the tireless sending of manuscripts, and the hope against hope that someone will like what they’ve written.

When these images dance across my vision, I am inspired to buckle down and write just like them. I am encouraged to keep pushing and dream as they did. I am hopeful that someday my words will be read, my work will be worth it, and my hopes fulfilled.

That being said, investigate your literary heritage. Seek out the writers who have, in one way or another, mingled and mixed and sweat and bled and hoped and dreamed in order to bring their words to you.

They are your ancestors. Make them proud.


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