One Writer’s Influences

A number of my friends on Facebook are posting influential books in their lives. While I’m only 26 and imagine my list will grow, I always like a challenge. What influenced me? Was it the book that influenced me, or the author’s repertoire? Given that it’s a social media phenomenon, asking those questions allows me to think about the moment, and not what awaits the future. With that, here are a few of my most influential books in no particular order:

Goodbye, Columbus (1959) by Philip Roth: I’ll never forget the first line of this novella, part of a collection of Roth’s early fiction of the same name: “the first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.” I never imagined such a simple but ultimately powerful line would impact me. It kindled a sense of justice in me, later opening my eyes to the troublesome class divide in American society. It also moved me to become a better writer. Each sentence was tight, powerful and made sense when reading. At the time, I had given up on school. I was using all of my energy toward my creative nonfiction writing portfolio for the 2006 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I knew reading made one a better writer. While I didn’t win, much less get a recognition, reading this novella and a handful of others while writing full-time was an unforgettable experience reinforcing my goal of becoming a full-time writer.

Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison: I read this novella during the same week as Goodbye, Columbus. So much of the narrative above is the same. But while Roth is a cynical white male disgruntled by the injustices of the world around him, Morrison’s prose read so differently. A historical novella, I could hear Morrison’s moving and powerful voice in my head. Her deep and ruminative voice created disturbing yet romantic images in my head. Its musical prose pushed me to be a better writer by creating strong visuals embedded within the narrative.

On Photography (1977) by Susan Sontag: Okay look, I still haven’t finished this book. I started reading it in 2004/05 around her death. My (now deceased) uncle sent me a load of first edition signed books on my birthday and during every holiday and over the years I received signed copies of both her Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) and The Way We Live Now (1991). When I ask was it the book that influenced me, or the author’s repertoire?, I definitely refer to On Photography. Sontag as a character was honestly more interesting to me then, when I was impressionable. I was a loner, someone who by that time in 10th grade was told I should be in college (heh, I am ten years later). So I was more interested in Sontag as a public intellectual with a clear rebellious streak. In addition to her clearheadedness and confidence, Sontag was interested in everything and curious about creating her role in the world as a writer. Those noble traits alone really inspired me.

The most influential of her essays thus far is wrote the introduction to the English translation of Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness’s Under the Glacier (2005) shortly before her death. Published in the New York Times Book Review. Like with Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, a single line from this review stood out to me: “The journey ends when the revelatory presence proves to be a phantom, and vanishes. The utopia of erotic transformation was only a dream, after all. But it is hard to undo an initiation. The protagonist will have to labor to return to reality.” In fact, I included it in my commencement speech from the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, which you can see here.

Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf: Growing up in this post-modern era of stream-of-consciousness internal narratives influenced my decision to ditch English classwork and read this book instead. I don’t remember a lot of it frankly. But I remember crying a lot and had a dictionary next to me most of the time. Woolf’s prose and deep understanding of the complexity of the human experience really touched me. Clarissa Dalloway stood out for some reason. Conceling her insecurity and fears is expected of most people, but given she was fairly upper-class was fairly identifiable, too.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) by Thornton Wilder: When I finished Wilder’s second novel reflecting on morality and the interconnectedness of the human experience, I was reminded of the movie 13 Conversations About One Thing (2001). The deeply spiritual and inquisitive book is firm in its Christian universalist roots. 13 Conversations is much more secular in its approach, but both still share a moral imperative. 13 Conversations is also a lot subtler, exploring how secular cosmic energy or karma or some force unite us. In a pluralistic era, it makes more sense, allowing audience to reflecting on their own beliefs and experiences. San Luis Rey is louder, incredibly confident, enthusiastic and very theological however. But it’s a timeless story and definitely in the canon of twentieth United States literature. Both also boost the credibility of the feel good sub-genre of books and movies though fortunately neither are confined to that sole genre. (Remember Pay It Forward?) I devoured San Luis Rey in about a week, and it was the first book that was both clear and complex. I can’t wait to read it again, especially now that I’m no longer Catholic.

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion: When writing a personal essay about pain or suffering, this tragic memoir comes immediately to mind. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read it. I became lost in her raw, bone-chilling reflection of her husband’s sudden death and daughter’s hospitalization. I have since been influenced by it as a writer. (Clearly it influenced this essay on an ex’s death and queer memory.)

I read it during the hardest time of my life. I was graduating from a school I attended for 13 years. I was already fairly isolated and alone there. Most of my friends had already graduated and lived elsewhere. I was depressed, anorexic and also had a secret male lover. I had never been on a date before. I was also already struggling with my sexual orientation. And between the anxiety about leaving my second home, the fear of what’s next and the shame of my relationship, the lover attempted suicide, winding up in the hospital until after graduation. Of any other emotion, I find grief the easiest to communicate. Didion’s work should be required reading in any introduction to creative nonfiction course.

What have you read, and how did that work or author impact you? Have you read a book that negatively impacted you, but you still remember it?

What do you think?

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