What inspires you to write, to write better, to write more? For me, it seems there are three reading experiences that inspire me: reading great writing, reading interesting stories, and reading writing how-to books.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the first: great writing.
Ray Bradbury says, rather emphatically:
“I absolutely demand of you and everyone I know that they be widely read in every damn field there is; in every religion and every art form and don’t tell me you haven’t got time! There’s plenty of time. You need all of these cross-references. You never know when your head is going to use this fuel, this food for its purposes.”
All the great writers say you must read, read, read. Some examples I’ve come across recently:
Reading Great Writing
A new novel by a previously unknown writer, Christopher Scotton, who was discovered by Hachette (see, there’s hope for all of us!). His novel is The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a coming-of-age story that’s reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Stand by Me, and a little of Deliverance. What first caught my eye was the language. Some examples, gathered from random pages:
I was up Monday morning before Pops, just as the sky was beginning its run to purple and blue. I put on a full pot of coffee for him and sat at the kitchen table until he woke–coffeepot dripping and spitting as the first yellow light from the east fired tops of the Medgar mountains. Then stirrings from upstairs and the creaking of floorboards under weight.
(from the first page, but not the first paragraph):
June was midway to my fifteenth birthday and I remember the miles between Redhill, Indiana, and Medgar, Kentucky, rolling past the station wagon window on an interminable canvas of cornfields and cow pastures, petty towns and irrelevant truck stops. i remember watching my mother from the backseat as she stared at the telephone poles flishing past us, the reflection of the white highway line in the window strobing her haggard face.
(I’m not sure if “flishing” is a typo for “flashing” or an invention, but I’ll give him credit for a new word.)
We walked over to a corner [of the attic] piled with fishing rods, discarded creels, an old baseball bat, and various retired sporting equipment: Pops’ high school football helmet, an ancient leather fielder’s glove with none of the fingers linked. I tried to put it on, but the leather was unforgiving….I wandered over to a light-blue and yellow trunk with ARP written in gold lettering under the hasp. inside was my mother’s high school career. Her yearbook from senior year, a prom picture, sheaves of A-plus papers, class president certificate, first copy of the school newspaper she started, founding president of the Student Volunteers. All of her teenage accomplishments compiled before me like an old newsreel.
I also noticed in these cases how Scotton shows instead of telling. It’s one of the important things we ingest when we read great fiction.
Here’s another example, from The Gift of Rain by Tang Twan Eng, a lyrical, poetic novel. It begins:
I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.
This was back in a time when i did not believe in fortunetellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into this world to say, to those for whom her prophesies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.
(skipping a paragraph)….The day I met Michiko Murakami, too, a tender rain had dampened the world. It had been falling for the past week and I knew more would come with the monsoon. Already the usual roads in Penang had begun to flood, the sea turning to a sullen gray.
Notice how Eng sets a mood immediately, how he establishes the place and the tone. And you know exactly what the book will be about – the author and this Murakami person. And, of course, rain. When I began reading, I settled back immediately with a sigh of contentment. And I wasn’t disappointed.
I also want to note how the author makes every single word count. Not one could be removed without altering and diminishing the power of the story. This is great writing.
Finally, and certainly not last, my favorite book of 2014, and one I have re-read and given to others to read: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.
The story is about the experiences of two young people during World War II. One is a blind French girl; the other is a young German soldier. They meet in the town of Saint-Malo, as it is being bombed by the Americans.
From the prologue:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire street swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
What a great beginning! It really grabs you as a reader. Doerr took ten years to write this novel, and it’s just about perfectly written. In another place, chosen at random:
Werner walks home oblivious to the rain, trying to absorb the immensity of what has happened. Nine herons stand like flowers in the canal beside the coking plant. A barge sounds its outcast horn and coal cars trundle to and fro and the regular thudding of the hauling machine reverberates through the gloom.
See what I mean? “Nine herons” (sounds like haiku, doesn’t it?) and “the regular thudding of the hauling machine…” One more – you really need to read this book:
Marie-Laurie wakes and thinks she hears the shuffle of Papa’s shoes, the clink of his key ring. Fourth floor fifth floor sixth. His fingers brush the doorknob. his body radiates a faint but palpable heat in the chair beside her. His little tools rasp across the wood. He smells of glue and sandpaper and Gauloises bleues.
Read excellent fiction. Don’t read junk; you won’t learn anything from reading junk, and you’ll absorb the junk and think it’s okay. It’s not; not all fiction is created equal.