The 4 Works That Make A Writer
I’m always amazed when “writers” tell me that they don’t have the time to read. But I’m even more amazed when I hear writers who don’t like to read— can you call yourself a writer at all at that point?
And why is this phenomenon wholly unique (at least in my experience) to the art of writing? Can you imagine a painter who hates paintings? A director who hates film? A musician who hates music?
I can’t, which is why today I wanted to share my love of fiction. These are four pieces of literature that so shook me to my core that they inspired me to want to make my own poor attempts at literature.
Stoner by John Williams
The New Yorker once called Stoner “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” Which, not incidentally, is the first time I had ever heard of the book. After reading the article, I immediately went out and bought it and now pressure 99% of my friends to read it.
In it, William Stoner is a young man who grew up in a farming household. He goes to University to learn about advanced farming techniques, with his father hoping he brings back those techniques to improve their farm.
He takes a required course of English and it opens his eyes to an entire world he had not previously knew it existed: the world of literature. The rest of the book would follow him through out the rest of his life.
I could not think of a better word to describe this book other than sentimental. A unique sentimentality, one that is both heart wrenchingly hard to read, and one that is inspiring, pervades the novel.
When I first read it—in June of 2014—I had decided to take a month off drinking, and focus solely on writing, which may be why it spoke to me so much.
A man, who was on a certain trajectory in life, began a wholly different one, transforming into someone completely different. I found myself in the character and it still remains the only book I’ve read more than twice.
The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My favourite class during University, and my favourite era of writing at the time, was the romantic era, and this novel stood out to me the most. It was the only one Oscar Wilde produced, and while it doesn’t fall within the normal era of romanticism (1800–1850), it certainly falls within the thematic and emotional guidelines, which was why it was taught in one of my romanticism classes.
Now, as an indestructible youth, I fully admit that I may have missed the main point of the book…
That full-fledged hedonism corrupts, and that meaning is more important than beauty.
Rather, what struck me, which may be a running theme in this post, was the sensibility of the novel, the emotional power, and the reckless obsession with youth, at any cost necessary.
It relayed to me the power of the novel to move, to change you, and to provide a full range of emotions through words on a page.
(In writing this post, I found out that there’s multiple versions of this story, some more censored then others, and now I’m wondering which I read. Definitely will be going back and reading this book in the near future.)
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
As far as changing the trajectory of my life is concerned, Tim Obrien’s collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, may be, for me, the most important on this list. It was from my second year of University, and was required reading for my first class on English I actually liked: ENGL 282 — Introduction to the Short Story
Before this class, I saw English as a mere means to an end, a necessary evil that one must take, despite the bore they always seemed to cause me—despite being an avid reader my entire life. For some reason, classroom literature bored me to death. I can’t explain why, but it just did.
Little did I know, all I needed was the right teacher, and the right story.
In The Things They Carried, Tim presents a book that is, on the face of it, autobiographical, detailing his experiences in the Vietnam War (which he did go to).
About halfway through the collection of stories, he tells the reader that everything you have just read didn’t happen.
That’s right. It’s all fake. A ruse. A game of trickery. Fiction, not autobiography!
But why? Because, he tells the dear reader—and this is important—you weren’t there!
How could you ever know what it was like, through mere words, to experience the things he experienced?
To make you feel what he did, he had to make things up, exaggerate, add to it, go over the top, and get to somewhere false, somewhere above the truth, to land on the truth of what he was feeling, not the truth of the reality.
That was a mind blowing realization for me, which was the power of fiction to tell the truth—not the literal truth, but something more true than true.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
This is the first poem (though not my favourite) that made me fall in love with poetry, and is the inspiration behind what is perhaps, though they’re like children, and it’s hard to just pick favourites, my favourite poem I’ve written…
What resonated most with me, at the time in my life in which I read it, was his description of his life and the people who he surrounded himself with, those poets, artists, political radicals, jazz musicians, drug addicts, and psychiatric patients.
The first line in the poem, which goes:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,”
Had me immediately hooked. I felt at home in that poem, as if this was a man who was talking through time, 55 years in the past, and expressing exactly what it felt like to be a young man of my generation, “dragging” yourself through life, with “hollow-eyes” and whom absolved themselves on whatever they could get their hands on.
I read it in class, and it was okay, but then, about four and a half years ago, I read it again, and I was shaken with momentum, a movement that originated from within the poem, guiding and inspiring my own writing.
Now, almost once a year, I give it a once over, and it still doesn’t fail to invigorate myself and my writing.
A poem of a generation.
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther
Tao Lin’s Taipei
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar