Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Early influences: writers as readers

Often when I read the biographies or letters of writers, I find out about times--especially early in their careers--where they read voraciously and studiously. They read and reread, tore through the entire oeuvre of author after author, checked out their favorite writers' influences. They memorized poems or passages. Sometimes they imitated their literary heroes for a while. They compared and contrasted their favorite writers with other writers, figuring out what made one style appeal to them and another not.

I'm reading some of Jack Kerouac's early letters at the same time I'm rereading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty (the story of her friendship with Lucy Grealy). I'm going back and forth between the books because sometimes that's just how I read. And on one hand, I have Kerouac discussing Wolfe and Tolstoy with his young writer friends, and comparing inward-looking authors with outward-looking authors. On the other hand, I have Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, talking books and trading writing ideas, Lucy memorizing passages from One Hundred Years of Solitude.

So many writers start with a love of books, and at some point they move from just enjoying them to studying them--although the studying is also a form of enjoyment. It brings to mind my multiple rereads of The Catcher in the Rye, trying to figure out how Salinger tapped into such an incredibly strong voice. Studying Kerouac's The Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody and Desolation Angels to catch the rhythm, to realize how important rhythm is even in prose. Picking apart Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding to see how she managed to imbue seemingly ordinary events with larger significance. Learning about symbolism and taking the story where it needs to go from Golding's Lord of the Flies. Despairing that I would never be as skilful with English as Vladimir Nabokov, even though it's my first language and wasn't his. Practically jumping out of my chair at the big reveals in A Tale of Two Cities (the secret of Mme Defarge's knitting) and Invitation to a Beheading (when we discover M'sieur Pierre's occupation--I mean, seriously, is that not the most awesome scene EVER, literarily speaking?).

The library is our school, and we never stop learning. But there's something special about those early times, and the books we read then, the books that become our own influences.


  1. For me, the transition from reading like a reader to reading like a writer was a painful one, something I fought against, but inevitably happened despite my resistance.

    1. I went the other way; I started reading more critically and that sharpened my desire to write. But I've never stopped enjoying reading.

      I think fan fiction speaks to a similar impulse--we want to guide a story where we think it should go.

  2. It probably looks like I'm not reading your posts since I'm commenting one after the other, hah, but I read them earlier in my Reader. :)

    Anyway, I just finished Anne Patchett's Bel Canto. What an interesting, beautiful story! I'm definitely interested in reading her other work. it looks like its no wonder I adore your writing. You have similar tastes in literature as I do. My tastes have changed over the years. I read a lot more contemporary things now, but I will never cut my roots to those classics I've always adored! I love to pick them up and reread them. :)

    1. I definitely recommend Truth & Beauty, especially for writers. It talks a lot about the struggle to write well, to get published, and then to cope with the consequences of publishing. At its center, it's a story about the friendship between two writers.

      I would also recommend reading Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face either right before or right after it.