Compiled by Jeana Conder
A couple of months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled. The responses I received are now creating our newest series, “From the Mouth of Writers.” We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion. This month’s question: Was there a specific book that led you to write?
It will surprise you when I say that no, there wasn’t a specific book. Honestly, my interest in writing evolved from a childhood obsession with song lyrics. I was a weirdo child of the 1970s who could not get enough of Cole Porter. This evolved into a love of theater and dramatic dialogue. I first wrote plays. I wrote many bad plays. I wasn't really wasn’t electrified by fiction until quite late in the game, though I read fiction quite a bit.
I wanted to be a writer when I two and I saw my mother writing a letter. I tried to copy her cursive but became frustrated because it didn’t look right, I loved the books and the idea of communicating ideas on paper. By the time I was in second grade in a one room school house in Clark County, Wisconsin, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher and a writer. Books that inspired me were primarily poetry like Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool, which I recognize now to be a Taoist classic about the connectedness of all things.
I'm not sure there was one book that led me into writing--I seem to remember from a very young age wanting to write stories. But I do know that I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was in elementary school (not as a school assignment, of course! Probably not recommended reading for young children...) and it opened up a new world for me. I specifically remember reading a scene of the narrator as a young child wetting herself in her church clothes, and the mortification she felt was rendered so powerfully that I felt embarrassed for her. That sense of empathy between reader and character has stuck with me. It's still what I strive for.
It was reading more than any specific book. I read early, anything\everything I could get my hands on. I read fast but not very accurately, unless the situation requires it. Sometimes I think for a writer misreading can be as important as reading.
I don’t know about a single specific book, but I think it probably helped that my house was full of books when I was a kid. I loved e.e. cummings and P.G. Wodehouse, for example. So, guys with initials. I still read Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves and Wooster stories.
A specific book that led me into writing young adult fiction, or more accurately, was a green light for me when I first considered writing YA: Homecoming, by Cynthia Voight. I had submitted a short story to Seventeen Magazine (it used to have a terrific fiction department; not sure about now) and it was rejected by an editor who encouraged me to turn the story into a young adult novel. I had no knowledge of YA novels at that time (late 80s) and the first one I then read was Homecoming. I knew right away I was in the right place.
I loved reading biographies & auto-biographies as a child. I believe the power of "true story" was my inspiration for writing.
Yes. The really bad ones. The poorly written ones. YOU know the ones. Years ago, and I’ve been reading since electricity, I read one too many crappy published books and figured, dang, if this junk got published, what in the world have I got to worry about? Well, that started this whole crazy adventure and I haven’t stopped yet. And, hopefully, my writing has gotten better. Hopefully.
I consider "Sometimes a Great Notion" by Ken Kesey to be my favorite literary masterpiece, but the work of Jim Harrison was very influential when I was first deciding to pursue writing as a craft, or vocation. Also: Tony Earley's "Jim the Boy", Tom Franklin's "Poachers", and Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News".
No, it was my personal experiences living in Beirut during its civil war that led me to start writing and to be more specific it was my son who asked me to write about our fifteen years in Lebanon from ’69 to ’84 that led me to learn to write.
In college, I picked up Michael Byer’s short story collection The Coast of Good Intentions. Before, I had read short stories, probably the ones that everyone reads in high school: “A Rose For Miss Emily” and “Roman Fever” and “Hills Like White Elephants” and…well, others that didn’t stick. A thing that troubles me is the insistence that the “classics” must be appreciated, especially by seventeen year olds. I am a well-read, curious sort of fellow, and I promise, I just didn’t understand Faulkner or Welty or Wharton or Fitzgerald, and especially not Hemingway. Eventually, appreciation came, but at first?—nope.
Byer’s collection though, did what all good writing does: in each story, it was as if a hand were reaching out to guide me along. Here is the world, the book said. Here is a place. Do you see it? Do you smell it? Do you hear it?
In the collection’s first story, about a lonely, retired teacher slowly beginning a relationship with a woman he knew years before, Byer writes, “I was drunk but not drunk enough to say what I wanted, that we don’t live our lives so much as come to them, as different people and things collect around us.” The line struck me then, as it does now, as a perfect example of writing’s magic, which is to put into words the very thing I didn’t realize needed to be said.
Oh, I remember thinking as my heart broke, and I longed with impatience to know which people and which things would gather around me as I grew old: I want to do that.