Steve Liskow  

Later Influences

Even though I liked writing, I never planned to become a writer, so much of what influenced me was unconscious. My ninth grade English teacher, June Roethke (RETT-key) was the sister of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, and she hammered grammar into me until it became second nature. She also introduced me to poetry. A Midwestern ninth-grade boy couldn't admit he liked the stuff then, but she helped me understand how the rhythms and words really WORKED.

My tenth grade English teacher, Sharon Hunter, was about twenty years ahead of her time. She had my honors class do what are now called free-writing and peer editing. We wrote on lots of really abstract and bizarre topics just to get used to putting words on paper. This was back in 1962. If any one person helped me find the beginnings of my writing voice, she deserves the credit. Or blame, if you'd rather.

I liked certain writers in school, and a few of them-many Midwesterners because I grew up in Michigan-gave me some of that same sense of how the words should sound: Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner. I liked Hemingway's short stories, but still think his novels are too spare. Oddly, I never read The Great Gatsby until after I graduated from college, and it's one of my favorite novels. I taught it for years and have probably read it 25 times. I still discover something new every time I re-read it. The book got poor reviews and the first print run didn't sell out until years after Fitzgerald's death, but it's probably influenced more people than any other novel you can think of.

Shakespeare was the first playwright to use dialogue to differentiate his characters. I've directed six of his plays and assigned at least a dozen when I taught, and he still can teach you how to tell a story better than 90% of the people out there. Hawthorne's short stories are great. I love Stephen Crane, Twain, William Deane Howells, Joseph Conrad, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, Henry James, Dostoyevsky, George Orwell, Huxley, Richard Wright, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, and Edith Wharton, too. And how can you write in English without having read the King James Bible?

English is a language that relies on rhythm for its effects. Shakespeare figured that out, and Twain was a close second to him. If you REALLY want to figure out how to do it, read his discussion of how to tell a joke.


These two exert plenty of influence as well.