Friday, April 29, 2011

Writers Reflect on Reading: Part Two

I am certain that everyone has stories. I’m equally convinced that everyone is capable of writing these stories up into novels, short stories, articles, letters, notes, emails, blogs, texts, bumper stickers, billboards, songs, or graffiti. Writing is the legacy of our opposable thumbs and our ridiculously labyrinthed brains.

However, just as not all runners are equal, nor all athletes, all writing is certainly not equal. At some point during my college years I promised myself to never, ever waste my precious time reading junk. Never. Unless it’s a magazine. Then it’s all bets off.

For several years I only read the classics. Only the names bound in those Literary Anthologies you read in college: Hardy, Whitman, Woolf, Shakespeare. Under my definition of “classic”, Steinbeck was a bit of an upstart. Then after living in Nepal, I went through a long bout of only reading Indian writers—preferably ones who used magic realism. Do you know how difficult it was to make a steady diet of this writing? Salmon Rushdie hasn’t written that many things, nor has Gita Meeta, nor Tagore. It was like eating a very limited diet of only orange vegetables.  Yummy, but limiting.  My creativity, like a body on such a diet, was grinding to a halt.

Then I befriended someone who existed on a diet of everything, with a generous helping of sweet reading candy. Marianne read several books a week, reading them to sleep and waking to them before work. She read whatever was in front of her, whatever she found, whatever, whatever, and loved it. Marianne was a sweet novel addict and, as such, had the enviable ability to talk books with whomever she met. She called me a book snob and I called her a book whore. We were best friends. We parted—listen up Red and Blue voters—by mutually respecting one another’s views.

After meeting Marianne, I expanded my views. Here’s my adjusted creed: If for entertainment purposes only, and if (this is my caveat) the reader is intelligent enough to know the difference, and game enough to throw in superbly written novels, then the average reader may read crap.  The aspiring writer, though, is an exception.  To become exceptional, a writer must read more like an Olympic athlete in training.  A great writer must, like an Olympic athlete, read a well-balanced, varied diet. I know, I know: it works for Billy Bob Thornton to only eat orange food (okay, to set the record strait, he eats only raw food, not necessarily orange. Big difference), but not for the writer.  Sorry.  Even a straight genre writer should cross train.

With my new creed in mind, I joined a book group. It was kind of like the Nutrisystem for me. A prescribed diet of someone else’s food, just enough to pry me from my old habits, and get me on the road to a healthier diet. I’ll admit that I didn’t like all the books my group chose. I don’t care if he does write a pretty sentence; Jonathan Franzen struck me as a pubescent boy stuck with a nasty god complex. Mostly, though, I read wonderful books I never would have chosen with my own sensitive nose.  I was introduced by Mandy to Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea, by Maureen to Peter Carey’s Parrot and Oliver in America, and by Tracy to Jennifer Vanderbe’s Easter Island.  The camaraderie of a group to gush over or trash a book is added fun I didn’t take into account when I joined.

Like many people who have kicked an eating disorders, I maintain my Nurtisystem support group, but I also go on my own hunts. These days I’m like a reformed meat-eater who now leads groups on urban mushroom foraging. I will spend my late hours on the Internet searching the Independent Publishing sites such as Dranzen Books, Algonquin Books, Other Press. This search has led down some strange paths, such as The Mullet: Hairstyles of the Gods, or Shitting Pretty. It has also put some gems in my hands.  On these excursions, I have found Galore by Michael Crummey and The End of the World by Sushma Joshi.

While most of my college promises to myself (big hair, stonewashed jeans, cheap beer, Nihilism) are better off dead, my promise to stay away from bad writing has solidified like cement beneath the post of my own writing.  I have many coaches.  Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf will always be there, but so, too, will Louise Erdrich, Orhan Pamuk, Gao Xingjian, and Cormac McCarthy.  I may not make great art yet, but with the help of these Olympic coaches, I can strive for more.  Who knows, with time, practice, and lots of good reading, I could break the record–or put a deep scratch down it so it won’t play on the record player any more.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writers Reflect on Reading

Recently I wrote a list of books that influenced my writing and I thought it would be interesting to pose a question to my writing group, The Guttery. Tell me about a book or author that inspires your writing.  The Guttery responses were (not) surprising.

Bruce Greene's writing scratches like fingernails down the vertebrae of class and culture.  Listen to the performance, Love Outlives Us, and you'll appreciate that the writers who influenced Bruce were Kenneth Patchen and John Steinbeck.  Bruce claims that he likes them both because they tackle "big ideas and are thought provoking." Bruce does too.  His "Goldfish" piece read in the Moonlit Guttery's reading  of Love Outlives Us uses the metaphor of a harmless goldfish to pry open the box of the Vietnam war. My mother, whose brother's life was shattered by his three tours in Vietnam, could not sleep after listening to Bruce read his piece. She told me that Bruce's story gave her a new perspective on her brother's life and the cultural forces that led to his decision to do three tours.  Bruce has published his memoir of his Vista years on the web,  Above This Wall.  Here is an excerpt from Bruce's memoir. It is a section of  his statement of conscientious objections to his Vietnam Conflict draft board:
To be sure, I have been influenced by the great thinkers of non-violence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, however, my increased interest in poetry led me to my most profound influence, the American poet Kenneth Patchen. Patchen’s works encompass the totality of my religious beliefs.
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone,
Force cannot be overthrown by force,
To hate any man is to despair of every man,
Evil breeds evil—the rest is a lie:
There is only one power that can save the world—
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.

When A. Molotkov (Tola) told me that Milan Kundera was his one author, a felt a thrill of recognition.  Tola said of Kundera, "I love his capability to be modern and innovative, to play with the narrative and with character development, all the while discovering poignant human truths that are relevant to all."  This, is Tola's writing.  He's pushed and sifted enough sand to create a world in which all his character and two in particular, Zungvilda and Goombeldt, attempt to stand.  From Tola's work The Melting Hourglass:
Goombeldt walks in
folding his umbrella
why is he carrying an umbrella?
it’s not raining.
As with Kundera's writing, that's the point--why do we carry an umbrella when it is not raining?  How is it that we stand on such sticky, stilted ground?

Cameron McPhearson Smith writes that his favorite book is Craig Childs and his book The Secret Knowledge of Water. If you haven't read Childs' book, it is a fascinating, poetic adventure of man's inexhaustible pursuit of  water sources in the desert.  Cam writes that Childe's book is "inspiring because every word is so carefully picked; the book is a lesson in craftsmanship."  Cameron is an adventurer whose writing strives to include the reader in Cam own sense of  wonder and fascination with nature.  In this recent excerpt from Cameron's blog, his prose is as haunting, poetic, and evocative as Childs:
Funny that when the stars come out, we go in, and sleep, and dream...sometimes of the stars or of impossible distances, or of near-infinite energies, or of other infinitudes. Then, as the stars are winking out, we wake and step outside, the lit sky blocking our view and thoughts of a larger universe.
David Cooke was the last to share his favorite writer: Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakoy's Master and Margarita.  This book was called THE masterpiece of the twentieth century by The Times of London.  Having not read it yet,--I ordered it at Powell's Books online yesterday--I can't speak to the parallels between Bulgakov's writing and David's; however, in reading about this novel I found a similar trait.  Allusion.  One of the novel's predominate themes is good versus evil made through heavy allusions to Faust.  This reminded me of David and his use of allusion and his love of grand themes. In the first stanza in his prize winning poem Edges, the allusions transcend the experience of one life to an exploration of our lives.
I don’t know where to start.  Far before the moon pulled the tide
to your chin.  Before your groin became a grotto.  Before the brine
washed away the haloes your feet squeeze into the sand.  I don’t
believe in the alchemy of eels and their mud.