Thursday, July 26, 2012

Writers On Writers

If you're a writer, there is usually one work that has triggered your desire to write. One book or poem that has stopped you in your tracks and made you reconsider everything you have done so far. The more I read, the more this happens. The first time this happened though was when I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I read this novel in 2007, shortly after it came out, and at the time, I was knee-deep in graduate school plugging away at a novel I just didn't love. I felt like I was doing the basic things right, had established a plot and was moving forward, but I was bored with it.

There is simply nothing boring about Junot Diaz's work. His stories pulse with energy, and his sentences are rhythmic and vibrant and real. And in this novel, he experiments with form. Different narrators. Footnotes that have their own narrative while adding depth to Oscar Wao's world. And through all of this, I still came out caring deeply about the character Oscar. I consumed this book whole and then promptly stopped my novel and started over. The core of the plot remained the same, but I realized that there were so many different ways I could tackle it. And best of all it had me excited about writing again.

In honor of our assistant manager Kate Robinson's reading on Friday night, which will include short readings by some of the writers on our staff, here are the books that made us view our own work differently.  And a brief side note - because the events host in me can't resist telling you this - we'll be hosting Junot Diaz at the Coolidge Corner Theater on Wednesday, September 19th. (!!!)

Kate (author of Darling Angel Meat)
A hand grenade of a short poetry collection. One of the most vulnerble, exposed, angry collections that I've read, and it was one of her first collections - and I still think to this day, her best.

I read this book in my junior year of high school, and it was so different from anything else I'd ever encountered. I was very interested at the time in history and philosophy, and Faulkner was the first author I ever encountered able to use language to render those ideas into bloody, imperfect, hobbling reality. He creates a world so textured and complete that it becomes like the worst and best dreams.

Ghazals, dirty ghazals.  Manipulating the ghazal form with strict rules and then bending it into something unrecognizeable yet familiar was too tantalizing a prospect to pass up.  Ron Koertge's Indigo has the breathless playfulness of an author who messes with the classics and runs before anyone notices. 

Mary Gaitskill. She explores terrains of the mind and body without reserve, with bite, with these brilliant small details that color everything. That's what I hope I come close to in my fiction and comedy.

A lot of books influenced me as a writer early on: Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Albert Camus, Jeffrey Eugenides, but I don't think it was until college that I read D. H. Lawrence for the first time and had my brain blown open. I don't know what it was exactly: some of his writing is awkward, repetitive, weird or just plain gross. But when I read Lady Chatterley's Lover for the first time, there was something about the descriptions, the interiority, the perspective, the unreserved sexuality and the complicated philosophical underpinnings to be teased out that made it one of the few books I still re-read frequently and find that for better or worse he really informs a lot of the writing that falls out of me. But then I try to go all Hemingway when I edit.

Ric (author of the poetry collection Digging In)
I came across a copy of Rilke's Duino Elegies in a used bookstore in Seattle in the 70's, and first it piqued my spiritual interests, then my dormant, poetic ones, and shortly thereafter I began conducting my own verbal investigations...

Clementine is a perfect example of a character who's more than just a label. Yes, her ADHD is one important thing about her, but there's so much more to who she is. I try to take a similar approach to my characters; for example, Leo, the character in the story I'm going to read, is more than just a boy who likes to paint.

Since I'm reading poetry, we're talking poetry, and Mary Karr's book Sinner's Welcome had a deep, meaningful effect on what I aspire towards, as a poet. I can see a distinct change in my work before and after I read it. The poem "Disgraceland" particularly, I suspect, is a perfect poem, specifically the end.

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