We learn something, good or bad, from every book we read—maybe what not to do. More often, there’s something to gain. My reading includes German comic books about Max and Brett, German folk tales—a dual language reader, because my German isn’t strong enough to read without help–some Spanish language novels, a slow go, too, though Spanish is more familiar to me, my having lived in Tucson. I also read about home remedies, poisons, superstitions, Biblical sources (e.g.,Harold Bloom’s the Book of J), the history of witchcraft, angels, animals, great tragedies, heroism. If I’m interested in a subject, I read about it. Toads. Salamanders.
But my consistent reading for pleasure and for learning is literature, stories and novels and essays by the best prose writers—not only the critically acclaimed but also those I stumble upon. Thus, it’s difficult for me to say at any given moment who is the best writer, who has influenced my writing. That depends on the genre, era, and my mood. I couldn’t complete a list if I had to begin with the most ancient text and come forward. Always among relatively recent favorites are Chekhov, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Porter, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, and on and on. Right now I’m tense because of the hundreds of names I’m skipping. Per Petersen.
Because there are so many writers whose skills are greater than mine can ever be and because my experience personally is so limited—raised in a small town, low income, no travel until recent years—I am in awe of the field I work in—writing, in awe of what’s gone before and what’s current. That awareness can sometimes stop me. I sometimes put my writing away, or criticize it to the trash bin, or submit it without adequate introduction—a nice letter from a writer who loves words. My words and my confidence become heavy, I move with stones.
It’s possible that my writing, anyone’s writing, has a purpose, meets a need, whether or not the writing contributes to the grand art itself. Some people truly do write only for themselves, to satisfy a need for expression, to discover thoughts and patterns—many possible, good reasons. Sometimes we find journals and diaries that reveal a character and time and maybe a talent that we wish had been recognized earlier. Those are precious finds. They point to a truth about writing—you can’t be sure what effect your writing will have on the world. If you want to ensure that it’s never read, and serves only your own needs, then possibly you should burn whatever you’ve written. Heirs may print and distribute it or give it to a local historical society for posterity.
I’ve written earlier posts about how certain texts have changed my life. One has some bearing on how I feel about being so small in the ocean of writers. It was Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. The novel is about a man wrongly imprisoned and tortured for years. I was moved by how fiercely the character defended his self-identify which was in effect his freedom. As long as he didn’t capitulate and confess to what was not true about him, he was free. A friend advised me that that concept had been presented many times, in greater works and stronger ways. Probably true. There’s always something better depending on what pool of knowledge surrounds you. But Malamud’s particular example of freedom came at the right time for me to appreciate it, maybe because it was the strongest element of the work, maybe because the nature of the torture was more horrific to me, or because of a myriad other reasons. A book can affect a reader in powerful ways because the reader is ready for the message. None of us can be certain of the effect our manuscripts may have on others. We can hope and strive toward a worthy goal—to have a good message, to offer understanding of the human situation, or hope in times of despair, or just a moment of pleasure, an instant of beauty. We might even dream, maybe subconsciously, of producing a masterpiece someday. Regardless our work will have some effect, possibly an important one, even if only to a small audience, maybe a single person.
Most recently I have been caught and stilled by the work of Annie Proulx, specifically Barkskins. The breadth and depth and beauty of the novel astonishes me. With historical accuracy and fictional power she’s covering the settling of Canada over generations, the great wealth offered by the country and native people and the gradual diminishing of both. She unfolds a panorama, vivid characters and scenes, cultures, customs, biases, wars, flora, fauna, illnesses, medicines, and in beautiful, clear, immediate prose. One needn’t grieve at the loss of a character, because he will surface again in the story of his sons or his sister or his enemy. Great achievements and great losses. Great writing. I love her and her talent.
And so it goes. I read, I write. I immerse myself in prose and ideas that enrich my world. Maybe I get stronger from resting a while and then I plunge on.