May 8th Prompt from WritersWrite1: “Write about the first book you read that made you want to become a writer.”
It is, perhaps, strange that there is no distinct turning point in my memory, but there isn’t one. I have always enjoyed writing, though I’ve been more and less serious about it or more or less drawn to different forms or genres of it at different times in my life. I don’t honestly recall ever thinking of myself as something other than a writer. Sure, I didn’t think – or wasn’t certain – that I was going to do it professionally, necessarily, but I wasn’t ruling it out. I loved reading and I loved words.
If I can address the question a bit more broadly, to discuss the books that stick in my mind as especially inspiring with respect to my path as a writer, there are, however, a few.
ONE: My mother gave me – or let me borrow? – a small, thin purple book with some sort of tiny geometric pattern on the jacket. It was hardback even at that size. A book of Maya Angelou’s most memorable poems. There was one she knew practically by heart – “Phenomenal Woman” – and I remember the rhythm of the words in her mouth, the rocking of her hips, and the way those words seemed to DO something, like they were alive and active.
I felt the same when I discovered Nikki Giovanni, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. I know you’re thinking, “But some of those are musicians!” I know, but they sing poetry, to me, and that counts. I wanted to write in ways that would flow past my ear and pour down my spine like warm water, in slow-motion trickles and rapid slick torrents. I wanted to make words, find words, and build up ways with words that DID something, that affected someone somewhere the way all those words had affected me.
TWO: The children were smart, so smart, almost TOO smart. They could do things that astounded the adults, that turned the tide of wars, reshaped political landscapes, and ultimately brought peace, prosperity, and revolution to their world and the galaxy beyond. It wasn’t so much that Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game inspired me to write, but, rather, it helped me to feel, at a core level, what my parents were trying to cultivate in me. It helped me to Dream Big. The kids in that book weren’t perfect. Indeed, they were deeply flawed in their own ways, and they struggled on multiple levels, but they rose to the challenge more times than they backed down and they achieved amazing things. I could be one of them. Why not? If that included writing, so be it. “My age is nothing,” I thought, “I am capable of so much more.”
THREE: It was a thick book, one of my mother’s favorite, and it came with a story about reading it in one sitting on a night before a university exam, a story that included getting no sleep but acing the test anyway because the book was so relevant. I remember some highlighting, maybe some notes, and I can’t remember if I was the one who dog-eared the forty-page speech in the middle or if it came to me that way, but I admit that the first time I read the book, I skipped it and had to go back. It wasn’t the kind of reading anyone could say was easy, but it was astonishingly engrossing. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
The book has gotten a bad rap over the years, as the author’s philosophies have sustained hits from all sides, but I genuinely believe that as literary art, it is a model in many ways. Philosophically dense, of course, and entirely too long for most audiences, true, but the heft isn’t fluff. The layers of substance, the exploration of human emotions, economies, love, sex, politics, business, technology, the past, and the future can’t just be thrown away because one doesn’t agree with this bit or that other bit – not for me, anyway. I still love it, many years and multiple rereadings later. It still makes me feel like the equivalent of a foodie for literature. I find myself salivating in want of the next course, lusting for certain turns of phrase, an iconic character moment, an elegant plot shift. She is a far more skillful artist than most are willing to acknowledge. I knew, wrapped up in her words and worlds, that I would love to write something so finely crafted as well as something that MATTERED, something that people would return to again and again because it spoke to something core to humanity, even if that core was perceived differently by different sorts of people.
FOUR: Oddly enough, I’d put off reading it for years. I’d read another book by the same author and enjoyed it, but heard that this was really her masterpiece. I’d bought everything I could find by the author and stacked it on my shelf for years, but I just … never picked it up. Then, somehow, I can’t recall exactly, I stumbled upon the audiobook version and decided to try it on. It fit better than a glove. It felt like someone had reached into my mind and rearranged everything that I loved about literature, recombining it into something that was written just for me, something I couldn’t help but love in the emotion-overwhelming way that moves some people to tears during symphonies and operas. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is in a class of its own.
At heart, I’m a poet, with story-writing coming second in my life, and the lyricism of Butler’s work does more than steal your breath. It is a lockbox for human hearts and fuel for any challenging road ahead. Walk away from it unread at your own peril. You will have missed something so vitally, beautifully, horrifyingly human. You are walking the world as if never having felt tears or shared laughter. This book is GORGEOUS! And it made me think that maybe, somewhere in me, there is something equally devastating in its beauty, even in darkness. It reminded me that, in writing, every part of me is welcome; in writing, I am not alone but in the company of many mentors and present, if quiet, friends.
These are the books that have most inspired me to be a writer and to learn and practice this art and craft. I am a wordsmith-in-development, exploring strength, strategy, darkness, and beauty made all the more real by its flaws. That is the essence of my writing life and these books are my oft-remembered teachers.
What books inspired or shaped your writing life? Was there a specific moment that you remember shifting your thinking toward becoming a writer?
photo via imaginesisters.org