Creative Influences

Recently, my wonderful husband and I watched all three Anne of Green Gables movies start to finish. That’s right. Matt not only sat through them, but he’s the one that suggested we watch them in the first place! On VHS, no less.

I hadn’t watched them in several years, so watching each of them again reminded me of my early teens when I watched them endlessly, amused at Anne’s often silly yet sincere attempts to become a writer.


Funny as it is to reflect on now, I think it was watching those movies that encouraged me to think about becoming a writer. There are so many influences that encouraged me when I was young, but there was something about Anne’s character and her desperate yearning to be a successful writer that mirrored my own imagination and passion for reading and writing.
If I think about it, there were dozens of stories, films and books that influenced me when I was young, that “raised” me as a writer, in a sense. Belle of Beauty and the Beast loved to read, Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is about a girl with a wild imagination and a flair for story-telling, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy encouraged me to journal (although I didn’t journal about spying on neighbors and classmates), and there were many, many others. Yes, most of them female.
Further example: last night Matt’s bandmates came over to practice new songs. Afterward, Matt’s longtime friend and bandmate, Thad, pulled his old video cam-corder and played “old-skool” video footage from their old band. Some of the footage dated back 10 years, to their days of pipe-pants, spikey hair, pop/punk tunes and the occasional “rude-boy” outfit. It was hilarious to see and hear some of their influences, to listen to them laugh about their old haunts, friends, clothes, and how much they tried to be like this or that musician.
Influences can come from anywhere – books, film, music, images, fashion, and more. From stage of life to stage of life – from childhood, adolescence, young adulthood to adulthood – creative influences shape our imaginations as fixed icons that speak to us and later help us remember who we were and what we were like and what we loved when we were young.
After mulling over this concept through the past several days, I came across this quote:
“At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.” — C.S. Lewis
This speaks more to writing and fiction than music or fashion, but even so, when we think about how art influences us, when we recall those images, words, or sounds that inspired us most, we regard them as a part of what made us who we are now. They speak of life in terms that we understand, and therefore add to it.
So my question for you is : Who were your influences growing up? 
Do you have boxes of tattered and love-worn books from your youth? Old movies you watch on occasion? Albums or songs that throw you back in a time machine of places, feelings, friends, sights and smells? Stacks of magazines with corners folded to favorite looks that you still try to emulate or wish you could wear?

Why I Write : A Good Read.

Sometimes, in the simultaneous business and laziness of daily life, I forget how truly delicious it is to devour a good book. For as much as I love writing and reading, I don’t read books as often as I’d like. Several dozen of my favorites lay waiting on my shelves, gathering dust and whispering to me,

“Have you forgotten the moment when Michael discovers Hanna’s secret? Have you forgotten the scene when Claire and Henry meet in the library for the first time? Remember that favorite line you read over and over in Stafford’s poem, ‘the signals we give-yes, or no, or maybe- should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.’ Or the sensibility you felt when you finished The Great Divorce? Open me. Read me.”

I neglect them, thinking, I’ve read you before. I need something new, something that will take me by surprise. At the same time, I have an annoying habit of buying or borrowing books that I don’t finish. Even classics that others rave are their favorites lay half-worn and dog-eared to page 54, and the next 200 pages lay completely untouched.

So when I grabbed Bernard Schlink’s Homecoming to take with me on the train downtown this weekend, I wasn’t expecting to get caught up in it. I loved Schlink’s The Reader from the page one, but Homecoming, with all its intricacies and seemingly unrelated circumstances that surround the life of Peter DeBauer, did not earn my momentum as easily and so it lay discarded and half-read on my shelf for two years. It was the lightest book I could grab on my way out the door to spend the day in the city – just in case I had a spare moment of boredom and found myself in desperate need of distraction. Somehow in reading it this weekend I was able to push through my disinterest and finally understand Peter’s voice in the story.

I don’t think it was Schlink’s writing that was to blame for my previous neglect; I am woefully immature when I open a book. If it’s from an author I’ve read before, as is the case with Homecoming, I have a set of expectations that need to be broken down and replaced with something better than I could have imagined. The author needs to simultaneously break my expectations with something entirely different, and yet they also need to offer me pieces of them that I found fascinating in their previous works. For Schlink, he has this habit of creating highly introspective characters that take the time to ask the questions that the reader is wondering, too.

“Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?”

“What is law? Is it what is on the books, or what is actually enacted and obeyed in society? Or is law what must be enacted and obeyed whether or not it is on the books, if things are to go right?”- Bernard Schlink, The Reader

Schlink does not do readers the disservice of trying to offer an answer. That his books revolve around post-war Germany and their attempts to rebuild after the World Wars tells us : we may never have an answer to these questions, whether on the larger scale of reconciling past mistakes as they pertain to feuding countries, genocide, or law, or on the smaller scale of personal relationships between men and women, parents and children, strangers and friends.

And Schlink has a knack for plot twisting. You can sense as you read that pieces of the puzzle have yet to fall into place, that beneath all the questions and examinations of law, culture, society, and archetypal themes, an unforeseeable truth lies waiting for you and the protagonist. Once revealed, the effect is stunningly perfect; the beguiling maze of its progression now makes complete sense, even while you wonder, mournfully, why it had to end that way for the characters.

Needless to say, I’m enjoying Homecoming so much that I almost didn’t take the time to write this post, yet reading it is so inspiring that I couldn’t help but write about it.

That’s what a good read will do for a writer, and that’s why it’s so important to continue to feed our imaginations with as many stories as possible.

Reading spurs me on toward new ideas and possibilities, and soon my well of inspiration is overflowing onto the page.

Feed your hunger for a good read, and your own page will never starve.

Ritual: Poetry

I have this book, Good Poems, a collection from Garrison Keillor. He compiled a collection of more than 300 poems of every type and subject, written by the greats – Shakespeare, Donne, Yeats, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, Hughes – and other lesser known poets.
I first discovered the book when I was a page at my local library. When I was bored during my shift, I’d sneak into the poetry section, grab this book and read it where the librarians couldn’t see me from the front desk.
I loved it so much that I bought it, and now, every once in awhile I pull it from my shelf, entwine myself in a blanket, and read and read and read. I never start at the beginning of the book and worked my way to the end, a phenomenon I only just realized the other day. I always find myself opening to a random page and reading it. Backwards. If I open to page 342, I work my way back through the book: 341, 340, 339… I have no idea why.
And I don’t read it silently, and I don’t read a poem only once. I often find myself reading it aloud, many times over. The second, third, or even fourth time takes me deeper and deeper into the poem until its rhythm becomes ingrained in me, like a tidal wave or the melody of a song, or the steady tick of a clock.
And when I reflect on each word – its meaning, its placement, the subsequent punctuation – I find a clue, a piece of the puzzle that reveals a little more about the writer’s thoughts and feelings, their stream of consciousness.
Somehow this ritual, the book between my hands, the blanket cloaked around me, the sound of my own voice stumbling over the rhythm like waves over rocks until I am finally immersed in it like a river tide, feels more right and real to me than prose does right now.
One of my favorites:
A Light Left On
by May Sarton
In the evening we came back
Into our yellow room,
For a moment taken aback
To find the light left on,
Falling on silent flowers,
Table, book, empty chair
While we had gone elsewhere,
Had been away for hours.
When we came home together,
We found the inside weather.
All of our love unended
The quiet light demanded,
And we gave, in a look
At yellow walls and open book.
The deepest worlds we share
And do not talk about
But have to have, was there,
And by that light found out.
What are your favorite poems or poetry sources? Do you have a hard time reading poetry? Do you have a method for reading it that helps you understand it better? Do you enjoy another artistic medium better – music, visual arts, prose? What inspires you?

Top 10: Books that Changed (or Made) My Life

When did I first decide that I wanted to write? It’s funny… I don’t remember. I wouldn’t say that I have always wanted to write, but I can say that I’ve always loved to read.
This week, one of the assignments that my writing partner and I gave each other was to choose a book that made us want to write… and of course, I could not think of just one. Which led me to wonder, is it fair to try and only choose one, or would it be more honest to say that it was all books, or maybe the act of reading itself that gave me the urge to write? For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I’m hesitant to try and answer that question. At times, a single phrase in a book overwhelms me with inspiration. Other times, I find a deep sense of gratification in the story as a whole. And then there are the moments when the sheer act of turning a page, of smelling an old book, of holding it with both hands, is a deeply spiritual, emotional experience.
As we discussed our picks, I was struck anew with the realization of how deeply influential good writing is and how transformative it is when people learn to read. As a young girl, my days were filled with great stories, pages, and words. When my frizzy-haired, stick-figured self had no one to relate to, I always found deep comfort in the weight of a book in my hands, and a deeply awkward main character, not unlike myself, that could be found within it’s pages.
And at every stage of my life, it seems, I’ve found book after book that meets me where I am emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and it takes me somewhere new. Even better, I love to find out that the people who wrote them were also once awkward, inquisitive, imaginative young people that found books and authors that inspired them, too.
The Official List:
1. I Think that It is Wonderful - I read this over and over when I was little! The start of my love for poetry.
2. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Judy Blume – between the ages of 8 and 13, I read this about 400 times! It was the first book that I remember mentioning World War II, Hitler, and anything about being a Jew. Note to teachers and parents: I recall this book much easier than any elementary school history lesson…
3. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster – the first book where my teacher told us to think about writing themes and messages, rather than merely text.
4. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle – between the ages of 10 and 14, I read this about 800 times! The characters were so unique, but utterly relatable.
5. Harry Potter (1-7), J.K. Rowling – controversial those these books were in my household, they had a huge impact on my life and my desire to write. My own peers, kids who at one point felt indifferent to reading where consuming these books like after-school snacks – all 700+ pages of each one! And suddenly, the underdogs, the awkward, geeky kids had a hero who fit their mold. And suddenly, it was cool for teenagers to talk about the things that are important in life, like love, friendship, good versus evil, and ask ourselves, could we be as brave as Harry, Ron, or Hermione?
6. A Great and Terrible BeautyLibba Bray – initially, it was the sheer gorgeousness of the cover that made me pick this one up. But the style of writing, the character of Gemma Doyle, and the recurring theme of coming of age as a young woman had me hooked from the first page. (Sadly, the sequels don’t quite live up.)
7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley – by the time I finished college, I had read this book for a class no less than 5 times. A little daunting after the third time, but I still love it. The first time I was assigned to read it was in my high school British Literature class, and after reading it we had to write a 10-12 page research paper. To this day, that paper is one of my proudest accomplishments [135 points out of a possible 135 points from one of the most demanding teachers at our school!) and I am still utterly fascinated by the layers and layers of meaning to be found between it’s pages, not to mention the inspiring author herself who dominated her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron – at the age of 18, no less!
8. The Reader, Bernard Schlink – It’s simple: this book changed my life. I was working at my hometown library as a page, and one day I came across this book. The cover looked interesting, but I was drawn to the simple, mysterious title more than anything. It was the Oprah’s Book Club seal on the cover that kept me from actually checking out for 6 months… When I finally did pick it up, I found a story so rich with compassion and raw, utterly human history that I could not believe that I had not even heard of it before. It’s been made into a great film, but I highly suggest you read the book first. If I had to choose, this would be the book that made me want to be a writer.
9. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – If I were stranded on an island and could only bring with me one book, this would be it. The characters, the plot, the writing – all work together to create this magnificent and completely original love story. It’s like listening to your favorite album on repeat – it just never gets old, and you feel like the characters are real, like they live in your head, and that each word was written for you. DO NOT under any circumstances see the film before you read the book, or I swear you may never pick it up. Even if you read it first, I’d say the movie is a rental at best. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, that cinematic “interpretation” is like getting McDonald’s when you ordered filet mignon.
10. Atonement, Ian McEwan – Of all the books I could have chosen to take with me when I traveled in Europe, I impulse-purchased this one in the airport just before we left American soil. Talk about context. Once again, the writing itself is reason enough to love it, but the characters and the story are so vivid and heartbreaking that it was glued to my hands for the first two weeks, save for that whole seeing the world part of my trip… Again, this book has a film adaptation, and I am happy to say that it is every bit as good as the book itself, although I always recommend reading it first.
Tell me, what are your favorite books?