Francine Prose in her book Reading Like a Writer states “Like most–maybe all–writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.” A New York Times bestseller, Prose’s work attracted reviews such as “An absolutely necessary addition to the personal library of anyone who is a writer or dreams of writing” (National Public Radio), “quality reading informs great writing” (Publisher’s Weekly) and “…writers can learn from the careful reading of great writers as diverse as Virginia Wolf and Flannery O Connor” (USA Today).
This echoes my stint at Rhodes University where in the first semester we had to develop a comprehensive list of what we wanted to read to assist our writing process in a chosen genre. We were encouraged to be as diverse as possible in our selection because learning profound insights about writing could come from unexpected sources.
Below I share how my choices influenced my writing:
The authors and texts that have influenced my development as a writer the most are Leo Tolstoy, Lydia Davis, Philip Stevick, Flannery O’Connor, Maxine Chernoff, and the two stories Boys by Rick Moody and Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of the first books I read, set me on a journey into the murky ground of relationships between men and women. The isolation and shunning of Anna, the loss of her two children, which leads to her throwing herself under the wheels of a train, contrasting with little consequence for her partner who shares her transgression, made an enduring impression. A quality of Tolstoy I admire in the novel is his propensity to share his opinions about the issues of his day. However, in my own work this still has to be refined.
The collected short stories of Lydia Davis introduced me to an author whose work I hadn’t read before. Davis experiments with different forms. Her stories are known for being short, concise and infused with humour. Having this in common (very short stories, spare style, humour) I embraced her as a kindred spirit. I learned from Davis, a master of the compound sentence, how to construct sentences that could be moulded into saying exactly what I wanted. Previously, having imbibed copious writing advice which advocated simplicity, I’d construct short sentences which left me dissatisfied, rewriting for hours but never quite reaching the desired effect. From Davis I also learned (The silence of Mrs Iln) that in a long relationship a man could encroach so much as to occupy space in a woman’s psyche and that the woman can experience that as heaviness.
Davis doesn’t use a lot of dialogue in her stories. In her interview in The Art of Fiction series of the Paris Review she states “I find dialogue artificial…” But for me, coming from a background of writing for television and radio, I have an affinity for dialogue as a valuable tool. Davis also says that description is artificial. The lack of description in her fiction make me uncomfortable. I admire Alex la Guma for his wonderfully descriptive prose.
Maxine Chernoff writes in different genres: poetry, short stories, novels, and screen plays. She’s regarded as a master of the short story and writes with the care and attention of a poet. Chernoff writes about women and relationships, something that comes through in my writing time and again. Her humour appeals to me. In the story Degan dying a man has a stroke. The humour is dark but handled with such a light touch. Balancing light and dark, the idea that humour has to be balanced at all was such an important insight for the growth of my craft.
In a reading presentation, Boys by Rick Moody and Girl by Jamaica Kinkaid were compared along these lines: Compare the role of girls and boys in the two stories. What does Girl say about femininity and sexuality? What does Boys say about masculinity and sexuality? Compare how both stories succeed (or not) in placing men and women in a different social standing and class. It yielded a harvest of insights into this topic.
Flannery O’Connor shows that prejudice is learnt, very pertinent to South Africa. One of her themes is the foolishness of women who trust too easily. I love how she uses words. One old lady is ‘ravenous’ for a son-in-law. Ravenous used in this context arrested my attention. O’Connor has a sly humour. She demonstrates in her stories that nothing is as it seems and pokes fun in a gentle way at the sometimes futile efforts of older people to teach the young.
Underscoring the above has been the ground-breaking book by Philip Stevick Anti-story: an anthology of experimental fiction which describes eight ways of telling modern stories: anti-mimesis, anti-reality, against event, against subject or theme, against the middle range of experience, against analysis, against meaning and against scale. This is crucial for me in my experimental stories.
In conclusion, another author who has influenced me is Cathy Acker. Her novel Blood and guts in high school is like a cold shower, a reality check about the vulnerability of women in society. Initially shying away from such naked anger which has the potential to alienate me as a reader, it acted as a shock into awareness.
As you can see from my process above, you have to, in this age of instant everything, make time to enjoy “the delights of slowly imbibing a book, savouring every word, sentence and paragraph, tasting morsels of metaphor” (O, The Oprah magazine).
I’ll let Francine Prose have the last word “though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.”
Which books have inspired your writing journey?