Five Books of Influence, or How I Became a Writer

This summer I gave some serious thought to some of the books that made me want to become a writer.

There were many books I had read over my life that moved toward writing stories of my own; admittedly, I still read some books that move me in this way. The more I write, however, the more I find myself analyzing novels I read.

Recently, I told my fiancée that I could remember the last time I had read a book for the sole purpose of enjoying a story. It comes with the territory, I suppose. But this past year I read in no particular order these books that I enjoyed:

The Great House by Nicole Krauss, Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick, and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Each of these novels were outstanding, and each of these novels are worth reading. I encourage everyone to read them.

Where was I? That’s right. Books that made me want to become a writer. Every writer has them. The following titles in no particular order taught me many things, but most importantly they taught me the value of story for story’s sake.

1. Wuthering Heights: The only novel Emily Bronte published, and in its time perhaps more modern than most in its depiction of characters the reader may not necessarily feel sympathy toward; but it was also a novel that in its time, written in the mid 1840s, that in my humble estimation pushed the boundaries of imagination. I learned from this novel, as I suppose I did from all the novels that influenced me most, that a writer must write from the heart.

2. Catcher In the Rye: Yes, undoubtedly popular. Yes, greater minds have written about this book since its publication. But for me the tale of Holden Caulfield written by J.D. Salinger showed me that the great human comedy is fraught with downward spirals, often occurring repeatedly through a person’s life. When I was in the army I was reading this book for perhaps the fifth time, flying home on a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia, and laughing like a hyena. A flight attendant made her way down the aisle and asked, “Are you reading Cather in the Rye?” I told her yes. “I could hear you laughing in first class,” she said. “I just had to come and see what was so funny and then I saw the cover. I said to myself there’s only one book with that color on its cover.” We talked about poor Holden for a few minutes and eventually my flight landed. Salinger was one of those writers who taught me that there is humor in tragedy.

3. The Sun Also Rises: Say what you want about Ernest Hemingway, but I loved this book. Hemingway was one of the great stylists of any age. He was another one who taught me about pace within a story, and that a novel doesn’t have to be wrapped up neatly at the end to be considered a good story.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s only novel taught me an important lesson about rhythm in prose, how words are like musical notes, how sentences contained their own musicality, and how all good prose should read as if someone is telling you a story. A few years back, a friend who emigrated to the U.S. was at his wit’s end with his 14-year-old daughter. His daughter had to read To Kill A Mockingbird for her English class. My friend asked me to instant message his daughter. What’s the problem? I asked. I can’t get it into this book, my friend’s daughter said. I have nothing in common with the characters. Do you know what a southern accent sounds like? I asked. Even in the movies? Sure, she wrote. Why? Put that southern voice in your head, I suggested. Just imagine it. Don’t tell anyone about it. A few weeks later, my friend’s daughter messaged me to say that she fell in love with the book. Good fiction should be that way, I think. It knows no boundaries.

5. The Outsiders: This book by S.E. Hinton was one of those novels forced on me in school. What my English teacher failed to teach my class was that Ms. Hinton was in her teens when she started writing it, and that she was 18 years old when it was published. Had I known this when I was in middle school I would have sat up straighter and paid more attention. The Outsiders was a simple, straight-forward story. This novel taught me that as long as there’s truth in what you are doing your work will find an audience.

So, that’s it. These are five novels that come to mind that helped shaped me into becoming a writer. There are many other novels and story collections that have influenced me as well, but these are the ones I was exposed when I was young. The beauty in reading, for me, is that now I’m pushing the underside of 50 years old, and some novels continue to shape me. With any luck, I’ll be telling this same story when I am 60, 70 or 80s years old…

Mind Candy: The Winged Monkey on My Back

So, I have a confession. It’s big. But not the “there are bodies in my basement” or “I wear ladies underwear under my suit” big. Because I don’t. No bodies. No ladies underwear. Well, actually, I can’t say for certain about the former because I live in an apartment. Technically speaking, there may be bodies beneath the concrete of the building’s basement, but I didn’t put them there. If I did that would mean I would have had a hand in pouring the foundation and I would have been only…what? Four years old when this place was built? Ditto for ladies underwear. Unless of course you count the boxers I’m wearing…My sister used to wear boxers as shorts when that was all the rage in the 1980s. My sister is also a lesbian with a loving partner and two children. She’s pretty much well-adjusted; even if she plots out her work attire on a calendar a month in advance. I guess we all have our little quirks. But you stick by your family, no?

Here it is. The big confession. I just finished Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot tonight.

Yes, I am a closet horror fan. Sure, I have read many great writers: Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Woolf(Virginia), Wolfe (Thomas), Garcia Marquez (how I detest going into a bookstore and finding his work with authors whose names begin with ‘M’), Joyce (of course…although I’ll save my take on Ulysses for another entry one day…it’s not pretty), Rushdie, Auster, Pynchon, Dickens (I still have nightmares), Eliot (George…not T.S.), Bronte (Emily), and too many others to list here. But horror is my mind candy. Always has been, always will. Crap! I should have thrown in Stoker and Shelley (Mary, of course) in my list…

 Growing up, I read my fair share of Stephen King. One week I stayed at the Jersey shore with a high school sweetheart and her family and read The Stand (the old version…the properly edited version…not the money-making scheme with original pages tacked on). I also remember Firestarter scaring the crap of out of me.

 There’s that word again…crap. That reminds me of a discussion (yes, I am digressing) I had with my son about people who curse too much. My father used to say that people who curse too much (alluding, he did, to the fact that there are boundaries within which profanity is called for?) did so because they lacked the vocabulary to express what was really on their minds. My son never met his grandfather. So I shared this sage advice with him. Then my son asked me if it was true. To wit, I told him “how the f*** should I know?” True story, by the way.

Anyway, back to the master of the macabre. Carrie never interested me. And by the time Misery hit the bookstores I was well on my way to becoming the literary giant you see before you, shunning my mind candy for the pursuit of more lofty works of fiction.

Over the past few years, I pursued and will shortly receive my MFA in Creative Writing. During my stint in graduate academia I had to put the brakes on and quit feeding the winged monkey on my back with horror novels. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being seen with a cheap paperback by the likes of King, McCammon, Clegg, etc as much as it was the reading load I was responsible for each semester. I had no time for recreational reading.

So it happened one night a few weeks back I went out to my local Barnes and Noble (because there are no more bookstores left in the world save for the used one in my neighborhood that some nights smells like a cross between wet cat and cooked cabbage). There I purchased Salem’s Lot because I had never read it. I no longer blow through books within a week. Then again, I’m not sixteen years old anymore so there are some things I have to do more slowly and other things I do more quickly which is quite embarrassing, but this is hardly for the forum for that sort of boudoir humor. Tonight marked nearly two weeks since I started the book.

I am on the fence, however. Aside from the vampire angle, which was probably the last book in recent history that pulled off the old-fashioned take on bloodsucking undead creatures, I had a huge problem with the main character Ben Mears, a writer who comes to Jerusalem’s Lot to overcome a childhood fear and perhaps write a book about it. Why a writer? I suppose you would have to ask Mr. King that. Mears could have easily been a carpenter, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a snake oil peddler, or some sort of hobo. Another pivotal character in the book knows more than Mears about vampires and that was, for me as a reader, rather unsettling. Still, say what you want about popular fiction but I think Stephen King is a good writer. His job is to tell tale and use the suspension of disbelief to his advantage, drawing the reader into the world he has created. I suppose this is what Mr. King has mastered. And for good reason, given how long he has been in the game.

Tonight, I will begin Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was another classic that I had missed growing up. There were plenty of other Bradbury books and stories along the way, but this particular book I’m looking forward to. Bradbury, perhaps even more than King, makes it all look so effortless. And for a writer like me I think that is important.

To draw the reader in while appearing, at least on the surface, to make no effort to do so is, in my humble estimation, the mark of a good writer. More than that, it takes a certain finesse, I think, to convince the reader that he is actually in the world the writer has created. The reader should never have a clue that what is unfolding on the pages before him is something made-up; an artificial representation of a world can be disastrous. We’ve all read those books. That’s why I think Stephen King will be read decades from now. When I tell people this they scoff and make George Plimpton faces at me; as if I am some sort of kook who wears ladies underwear or keeps dead bodies hidden in my basement. And that just shows how little some people know…about what good writing is…not the other things…

…the winged monkey on my back is gnawing at me…time to begin Mr. Bradbury’s book.