You Are What You Read
You are shaped by the company you keep, I was trying to explain to my son recently. He’d been watching a Youtuber known for vulgarity and disrespect. Find someone more wholesome, I told my boy, because even though you think he won’t, this guy will live in your head and that’s not who I want you to be.
My son doesn’t really know it yet, but whether you absorb the ‘person’ through reading, watching, or just hanging out, you are influenced by those you keep company with. I know that happens to me when I’m writing – my voice on paper changes if I have been reading someone with a strong voice. Unconsciously, I choose words and sentence structures more like what’s been in my head most recently. Since I’m aware of this, I can control it by not reading, say, Mickey Spillane while I’m trying to write something that isn’t gritty and noir.
The company you keep extends far deeper than your writing, of course. Whether it is books, people, or even, yes, the television and videos you watch, they mold you into something different. I love to watch cooking shows like Chopped and Iron Chef, and find that they inspire me to make different decisions when meal preparation times come along. My interest in cooking also extends to cookbooks, and after being given some of the cookbooks my grandmother and great-grandmother had used, I started to collect more antique cookbooks and started a series of blog posts cooking recipes from a Vintage Kitchen. That even filters into my books, where readers tell me I mention food often, although it wasn’t entirely my intent to do so – it’s just that I love to cook (and eat!) and it goes into my stories.
I’ve seen this from the outside, too. It’s not only children who are malleable enough to be led astray by their companions. I watched a creative who I had once admired and respected morph into a different person because of the company he chose to keep, until the day came I had to walk away from my ongoing support and consuming his work, because he started advocating against basic human rights. I couldn’t risk keeping on taking his work into me, because just like a disease, this is how it spreads. I’m not likely to ever advocate for the removal of anyone’s right to self-defense, but there are other ways it could seep into my life and besides, there are things you just don’t support. You tell them what they did, and you walk away. Then you grieve a little.
I got in trouble (hah!) a few years back for being open about not wanting my then barely-teen daughters to be reading YA books that advocated for incest, rape, and other abuses. Torture porn is, sadly, prevalent in a lot of the YA fic and I wasn’t going to let my daughters read it. Censorship! evil controlling mother, forbidding her children from reading. Um, no. What I was doing, and stated then, was protecting young minds from influences that they didn’t need to have. to somewhat self-consciously quote myself: “The vast majority of teens will never experience something that terrible. But we hold up all these examples and say “here, this could happen to you!” Is this a healthy thing to do to teen girls? And most especially if they are given no choice, and required to read them, for a true victim it could cause them to have to relive horrors. For an innocent bystander, it gives them a thrill at the expense of those who are not in need of fiction to help them cope. It does not teach them to avoid those behaviours, they are teenagers, they need parental guidance, strong, mature role models, and the education to defend themselves. Teen boys don’t need to think that all boys do is harm girls. They need to know that gallantry and chivalry need not die out.”
This is why when Thirteen Reasons hit Netflix, I asked my daughters not to watch it. I knew it was going to add glamour to a terribly, cowardly act. I knew that my girls didn’t need that narrative in their head. And I wasn’t alone in my reservations about the show, either. Movies, and books, tap into the emotions we already have – that’s part of the way we connect to a particularly compelling narrative. We have feelings about something already, and the media amplifies those feelings, until we start to feel like we have facts. As Mark Henick comments in the above blog post, feelings are not facts. It’s hard enough for adults to make that connection, it’s that much more difficult for teens to do it.
So evaluate what you are influenced by. The books you read, the Youtubers you let into your brain (ok, ok, most of us reading this are old fuddy-duddies who barely know who those strange creatures are… at least that’s what my daughters tell me), and even the people you hang out with. Not that you want to form an echo chamber but… do you want to be known for keeping company with the bitter, the liars, the vile 666s of the world? Or do you want to surround yourself with people who challenge you to do better, write more, explore new information and keep learning and growing? I know what I want for my kids, and I try to model that for them. They don’t get a choice about being around me!