Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Book for Writers and Lovers

I’m a bit late with my post, but have been busy with out-of-town visitors and getting some writing work done. I have my first sale (YAY!!). It’s small, but still, it’s a sale. I sold two children’s poems to High Five magazine (sister publication of Highlights), and I am thrilled. I’ve also been working on an article I hope to sell to Highlights and just put it into the mail yesterday, so back to your regularly scheduled blogging!

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)Some years ago, someone at a writer’s conference mentioned a book “every writer or aspiring writer should read” – Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. I went on Amazon and ordered a used copy. When I received the book, it was a tiny thing – about the size of a cigarette pack. It is a Shambhala Pocket Classic. Never heard of them before. But I have to tell you, it’s been kind of a gift. Most of the time, I keep it in my purse. If I get stuck waiting on line in a store or, God forbid, the DMV or Post Office, I pull it out and read a few pages.

It seems no matter to what page I open, I find something useful or helpful or inspiring or affirming. Let me give you an example. I opened the book the other day and ran across this:
 Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That’s what being a lover is: stepping out of yourself, stepping into someone else’s skin. Your ability to love another’s writing means those capabilities are awakened in you. It will only make you bigger; it won’t make you a copy cat.

I love that. It encourages me (and gives me permission) to take the time to read good writing, to immerse myself in it, to scoop it up slowly with a small spoon, and taste every word. I have met some writers over the years who have sucked me in completely with their extraordinary art and I have, indeed, immersed myself in all I could find by them and savored the works. This experience with writers really began for me quite early.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely the first. I must have been in second or third grade when I read Little House in the Big Woods, then found the rest and read right through them and read them again. I re-read them as an adult after my daughters were born and found them every bit as engaging as I did as a child. I re-read some and discussed them with my grandson as he read them. That says a lot about the writing.I always find her work inspiring.

Lucy Maude Montgomery followed close on Laura’s heels. The Avonlea series is simply heartbreakingly good. I revisited them more than once, savoring the strong movement of words across the page.

 The first writing lover for me as an adult was John Steinbeck. He has become a life-long love of mine. I believe I have read every piece of fiction Steinbeck wrote, most of them many times. My first encounter was when I was about twelve or thirteen. One of my best friends was a girl named Julie who had the most cool parents in the world and lived in an incredible house – modern and unlike any other house I’d been in. They had a large, circular living room. Floor-to-ceiling windows made up about half the walls, and most of the rest was a floor-to-ceiling book case filled with hardcover books. It had a ladder that ran on a track across the front. Yes. A rolling ladder, just like in those libraries in the homes of dukes and lords. One day while I visited, Julie’s step-dad climbed the little ladder and pulled a book from a high shelf. He handed it to me and said, “I think you’re ready for this. Let’s talk about it when you’re done reading it.” I was astonished to have an adult loan me a book, but more astonished to find he was interested in talking with me about it.

Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck Centennial Edition)The book was Of Mice and Men. I would guess I have read it at least forty times. I taught it for many years and always told my students I considered it a perfect novel. It has everything in it I wanted to teach students about literature – great characters, incredible descriptive writing, literary allusion, imagery, foreshadowing, irony, strong symbolism – all packed into a great sweeping story. And the names. I could talk for hours about the names in this wonderful little book. This book, and especially how it came to me, truly changed my life. I proceeded to read every piece of fiction I could find by Steinbeck, even Cup of Gold and Burning Bright, which I don’t recommend, by the way. Every writer has experiments that shouldn’t see the light of day. And I don’t think Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck’s best, but it surely cannot be overlooked. The distinction of being his best, in my mind, belongs to East of Eden. If you haven’t read it, my goodness, what a treat you have in store.

The Long Valley (Twentieth-Century Classics)I’ve gone through short-term love affairs with other writers but always return to Steinbeck. His short stories are little gems. My soon-to-be-son-in-law, Eric Baldwin, recently called me to discuss The Chrysanthemums, one of the short stories from Steinbeck’s collection published as The Long Valley. Now I have to tell you, Eric made a lot of points with me that day. Not only was he reading and appreciating my favorite author, but he gave me the gift of reminding me of that superb little story and to remind myself to spend some time with my first great love, gobbling up his words and drawing inspiration from his brilliance. You may also visit my writing lover. No jealousy here. I love to share him with others. Go ahead. Pick up some of his work. Steep yourself in it. Step out of yourself and into John Steinbeck’s skin. Fall in love with him if you like. Natalie Goldberg and I would approve.  

Who are your reading or writing lovers? How did you discover him or her? Inquiring minds want to know.

7 comments:

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Oh I love Steinbeck. He is one of my favorite writers. I can't say I've read every one of his books, but I've read a good many, and he has such insights that he's a wellspring of inspiration. I also was a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. I do believe I read all of her books, although it's been awhile. I probably should revisit her. Thanks for a great post, Rosi.

Morgan Mussell said...

Without any doubt, one of the most influential books in my life was the first one my mother read to me (and one I still read from time to time), "The Wind in the Willows," by Kenneth Grahame. Just as important was the edition - though I have collected others, the definitive one has Arthur Rackham's illustrations. Rackham, like no other, can make an English Wildwood seem wild. When I had a Volkswagen, I always thought of it as my gypsy cart. There were other life-changing book moments - like the time, as a freshman in college, when someone gave me "The Hobbit," and said, "Here, you might like this."

I guess it would be close to the mark to say that English storytelling has been the literary love of my life.

Neat post, Rosi, thanks.

Eric Baldwin said...

On the "authors fall in love with other authors" theme... in his book "Nonfiction", Chuck Palahniuk (one of my favorite writers) has an essay which is essentially a love letter to Amy Hempel (his favorite writer).
Thanks for the mention, Rosi. Now I feel embarrassed to tell you that I was cheating from the Cliff Notes the whole time. :)

Rosi said...

Thanks for stopping by, All. Eric, you are in so much trouble! But Thanks for the tip on the Chuck Palahniuk book. ;-)

Maggie said...

The first fiction writer I fell in love with was Alice Walker. "The Color Purple" was beautiful, but the other two books in that trilogy and especially the third volume, "The Temple of My Familiar" just blew me away, and remained my very favorite piece of fiction for many years. It might still be my favorite if I read it again. I have also loved John Updike for so long. "The Witches of Eastwick" was like eating a dark chocolate fudge sundae sprinkled with cayenne pepper; I read it on the bus to and from SJSU and kept a pocket dictionary with me to look up all the words I didn't know yet. Later on I read his "Rabbit, Run" series of four books and fell in love with him all over again. Oh, and then there's Annie Proulx...

As you know, Mom, I don't read a whole lot of fiction (anymore, apparently!), but my non-fiction author lover for the last few years is Michael Pollan. I haven't read all of his books yet, but I own almost all of them and have read three. "The Omnivore's Dilemma" was what sealed the deal, but his others, especially "The Botany of Desire", have not disappointed.

"Writing Down the Bones" has been on my Creative's Reading List for so long, along with Anne LaMott's "Bird By Bird". Maybe these will be my summer reading? Ah, books! Authors! XOXO

Margaret Duarte said...

Wow, Rosi! Great news on your sale to Highlights. I, too, love Natalie Goldberg and John Steinbeck. I'm currently re-reading EAST OF EDEN, and if feels as if I'm reading it for the first time. So much I missed the first time around.

Rosi said...

Thanks, Margaret. I'm pretty stoked. Lucky you to be reading East of Eden again. It is such a rich book and well worth a second and even third reading.