The Books of My Life
Last week, I participated in the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference. I’ve been a part of this conference for seven or eight years now, participating on a panel called “Publishers Q&A,” where an audience of about 60 people has the chance to ask the gathered panelists how to get their book published. As you can imagine, the questions range widely and include queries about how to submit a proposal (and whether it’s best to send the entire manuscript or simply a proposal), how to find an agent, how to find the right publisher for your book, and what the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing might be.
In addition to this panel, I also consulted with an author about his manuscript, which actually turned out to be a collection of songs. He and I spent an hour discussing what worked in the lyrics, which songs didn’t work and why, and what did work. Just before that consultation, I led a workshop — for the second year in a row now — on how to write about music. I had a small and engaged group, and we discussed a wide range of questions from how to conduct an interview and how to cover a show by an artist you’ve not heard before (this supposing that you’ve been given an assignment by your editor, and we discussed why an editor might give you that assignment in the first place, too) to establishing contact with publicists and pitching to editors.
We listened to two versions of Dan Penn’s “Dark End of the Street” (James Carr and Percy Sledge) and I asked them to write a very short analysis of the differences in the two versions. We then discussed their analyses.
Toward the end, as we discussed finding your voice, we talked about reading and its influence on writing. I mentioned that many of us start our writing lives by imitating the voices of writers with which we’re most engaged — songwriters talk about this all the time, too, imitating their favorite songwriter as an early step in developing their craft. Over time, with practice, we develop our own voices.
One of the questions I often ask musicians is which authors or songwriters, living or dead, they’d invite to a dinner party. Mary Chapin Carpenter told me that Elizabeth Strout would be on her list because one of Strout’s characters, Lucy Barton, says that we all have one story but we tell it in different ways. Carpenter went on to include Alice Munro, Jane Austen, the poet Donald Hall, Ron Rash, and Kent Haruf.
Jeff Hanna asked me once who some of my favorite writers are, and I simply said “Southern writers,” before turning the question back to him. He listed James Lee Burke and Lee Smith among his favorites, but he went on to talk about Stephen King and King’s little book On Writing, as one of the best books he’s read on the subject.
Brandy Clark also mentioned Stephen King’s novels because, she said, “they pull me in visually and that’s the way I write, too.”
Bill Kirchen, the “Titan of the Telecaster,” told me recently that Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is one of his favorite books and that Peter Guralnick is one of his favorite music writers.
Last week’s discussion led me to wonder whose voices have had the most impact on me as a writer. While I think of some music critics as models for my writing, my own craft has been shaped much more by novelists and essayists, some of whom are far out of fashion these days, as best I can tell. I imagine if I asked myself this question next week I would have a different set of answers to it, but for now this short list contains those writers and works to which I return again and again because of their ability to tell a story of because of their style.
Reynolds Price, A Long and Happy Life
Price, who died in 2011, is a North Carolina author whose graceful and elegant language grows out of his familiarity with the cadences of both his Southern neighbors and the King James Version of the Bible. A Long and Happy Life (1962) is his first novel and it won the William Faulkner Foundation Award. Set in fictional Bacon County, North Carolina, this is the tale of Wesley Beavers and Rosacoke Mustian, two young lovers who must come to terms with the destructive and redemptive power of love and death. Price not only creates two enduring characters, but he also carries us along with a golden prose that we can hear as if we’re listening to a song.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Dillard’s little meditations on the natural history surrounding her Virginia home are marvelous little portraits—almost literary still-lifes—of the strife and shock, the beauty and glory of nature. In her reflections, she often discovers beauty where she least expects it, and the grace of the world around her always delights and surprises her.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Okay; I know, who reads long nineteenth-century British novels anymore? I’m not sure that this novel—which is Eliot’s best—is much read outside of college and university classes, but if our politicians could read one book, this should be it. (Well, we might want to have them read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, too, for its focus on the struggle in our souls between good and evil.) Middlemarch is set in a society in the midst of cataclysmic political and social change and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Dorothea Brooke, and a large cast of characters, as she tries to navigate these changes and to discover the meaning and force of virtue (not a word, either in its connotative sense or in its philosophical sense that we much understand any more) as it guides her life.
Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds
I’m pretty sure this book has fallen out of favor—if it ever was in favor—and that it’s hardly read these days. Kazin is famous for sitting and writing this book, which deals with modern American writers from Henry James to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, among others (it was published in 1942), in the reading room of the New York Public Library. A graduate of the City College of New York, he decided to forego graduate work for a number of reasons and produced this singular work; he, Lionel Trilling, and Edmund Wilson, among others (and not that they’d see themselves as a group), were the public intellectuals of their day. Kazin’s book so affected me because of its close readings of literature and its resistance to reading politics or social themes into literary texts.
James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
Baldwin’s book floored me when I first read it because of its powerful exploration of the struggle for young John Grimes’ soul. With jazz poetry, he recreates scenes in which Grimes is slain in the spirit (is converted, roughly speaking) at his father’s church. It’s scary; it’s down-to-the-bones realistic; it’s emotionally draining; and it brings the young Grimes kicking and screaming into a confrontation with that age-old question of the ways that he can live in a broken world when he’s supposedly been made whole. Baldwin’s novel still resonates today.
I’d love to hear what writers and works have had an impact on your own writing.