The Works Upon Which the Work is Hinged:
An Exploration of Personal Literary Game Changers
Harvard Graduate School of Education
When I am asked about my favorite books there are three primary ways I can answer this question. I can talk about the authors and books which I enjoyed reading the most, the ones which kept me up all night, the ones I wept during, the ones I threw across the room because they were so damn good-some of these include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and most recently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I can also respond by talking about the books or the authors which maybe were not the ones I enjoyed reading the most, or ones I thought were the best written, but the ones I found to be doing something truly unique, something which made me return to them again and again to study their craft-such as Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, Louise Erdrich’s Round House or Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths. The third way to answer this question, and the one I am perhaps most interested in talking about, is from the positionality of a writer, one which reframes “favorite” into the light of “importance” or “influence” to my own craft. At times the books which pushed my evolution as a writer are within both of the aforementioned categories, at times they are in only one, but they are all of them some of my favorites because they allowed me to be who I am as a writer, they added to the construction of my artistic lens and framework. In this essay I will examine and discuss seven books which changed, clearly, the way I wrote and significantly reoriented my artistic trajectory. This list is not comprehensive, every book I have ever read has to some extent affected my writing, nor are these books are necessarily the books I think to be most valuable to the world, or the ones I think are perhaps the best written, but they were, for me, the perfect books at the perfect times, books which granted me access to a new world of thought and artistic expression. These books, in examining and reflecting upon my artistic journey up to this point, act as signposts showing me exactly how I got to where I am now.
The first book, while I was late to come upon it compared to many of my peers, redefined what I then understood about a book’s landscape, the sheer topography and scope of its world. It was the 8th grade when I read J.R.R Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, and I read it in one night. It was during this time, my 8th grade Winter vacation, I began to write a fantasy novel entitled, “The 19 Brooches”. Before I read The Hobbit, my novel at the time was taking place almost exclusively in a small town mirrored after a town in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydian series. I seemed to be unable to stray beyond a few miles from the town within my writing, and yet after reading the epic journey within The Hobbit, I was given permission to craft a massive world within my own book. Before, I wasn’t sure how to write across years of miles or even leagues-I wasn’t positive I could, at that time I believed I had to chronicle the complete day to day life of my characters from waking up in the morning, to going to sleep.
I spent weeks drawing out maps and designing continents and nations within my story. I developed three languages and nine mythical races complete with histories, cultures, and traditions. After a few weeks time I had nearly one hundred pages of histories, languages, maps and races developed and my novel was more than 40,000 words spanning each of the continents I had created. While I was still mimicking much what I was reading, The Hobbit allowed me to remove all fear and boundaries from the geography of my writing. I began to trust my fourteen year old imagination and vision in a new way.
The next year, a freshman in high school, I was feeling rather stagnant in my writing and reading. I had been fully engaged in fantasy books, but was yearning for something deeper than plot and character, my life had grown more and more tumultuous and I needed a way to better understand it; in my freshman English class we read “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by Salman Rushdie. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories I was able to engage in a fantastical world I was accustom to, and yet I was provided layers of text I was had not received from Lloyd Alexander or J.R.R Tolkien. The number of references and parallels within Haroun and the Sea of Stories to my own world opened up the way I understood the membrane of a book’s ecology, what could leave, what could enter, the dialogue between the world of the book and the world in which the reader was situated. Several of Rushdie’s characters were pulled from songs by The Beatles including a Walrus by the professional title of “I.M.D Walrus” and an “Eggman”. Until that point I had been reading and writing as a means of escaping the world and my reality rather than critically engaging it and using literature to inform my existence and the contexts in which I lived. I began to write more about the world around me, both in my fiction and my poetry, though I still employed magic and fantasy. I retired my first novel and began a second which paralleled the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, but re-situated it in a mythical Northern setting inspired by my explorations of my Norwegian heritage.
The next book which shifted my work was also a part of my freshman English class. We read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which provided me the opposite lessons from Hobbit, but again stretched my understanding of layers within a story. The book takes place in an afternoon and yet spans years within the memories and recollections of the characters. At the age of fifteen I was blown away by levels employed by Woolf, how the book felt as expansive as The Hobbit, and yet happened in one day surrounding a single social engagement. I recall enjoying the poetic language used in the book as well as the way Woolf discussed time within her writing while simultaneously playing with time in the movement of the book. Inspired by the book, I wrote my final essay for the class as an epic length poem about the fragility of time attempting to play with time as I wrote about it wherein the world of the poem spanned only minutes but hinged upon years of personal memories and dreams.
Over the next several years while I read frequently and wrote often, I did not find another book which affected my writing so clearly as The Hobbit, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, or Mrs. Dalloway had done. The rest of my high school years and my first year of college were marked by my addiction, alcoholism and severe depression, insomnia and anxiety. It wasn’t that I was not affected by what I was reading, but that I was so emotionally high, low, or numbed out that it was nearly impossible for me to really engage with what I was reading on a deep level. Shortly after I got sober in 2008 at the age of 20 I began writing another novel about addiction and insanity-a professor gave me the book “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson. I’ll never forget reading Johnson’s description of an overdose as “my muscles grabbed”, perhaps it was because I knew just what he was talking about, but his simple use of a simple verb in a way I had never read changed how I related to language. In that one line he personified the very fibers of his body, provided them agency, used simple language in a magical way which commented deeply on the ways in which addiction becomes us and we become addiction, the ways in which our bodies, down to our muscles are no longer ours. I recall sitting on the porch of where I lived at the time, clean and sober around seven months, having just read that line looking out onto the Spring street feeling as though for the first time I could see who I wanted to be as a writer. I wanted to use accessible language in unique ways, I wanted to show people we had not even begun to achieve what was possible with language.
That next year was a massive year of growth for me as a writer and a person, I moved through book after book after book, writing and reading at every chance I could. My style was changing so fast I felt like I didn’t have any control over my writing-everything felt like a freestyle montage, something like a theatre troupe moving through a city erecting itself around them as they moved, and danced, and sang. The year after, 2010/2011, as I decided to take only one class so I could focus on work and writing, I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Coinciding with this book was a greater control achieved over my writing-The Unbearable Lightness of Being was, in many ways, a perfect aggregate of lessons gained from the aforementioned books while also intertwining my passion for philosophy with my passions for poetry and fiction.
Kundera, manages to write poetically, play with time, while creating a fictional world that is integrally entwined to the real world and its history, all while seamlessly incorporating personal philosophies of time, love, sex, art, politics, and violence. I had previously been majoring in philosophy, but left it as the major at the University of Minnesota felt masturbatory and poorly incorporated to contemporary questions of justice, morality and truth. Kundera manages to employ philosophy and poetry within his fiction to such a great degree I began to demand more and more from my fiction and my poetry. It seemed to me then that our understandings of genre came from a place of desired precision within a certain mode of storytelling, but also perhaps from a place of inadequacy. A poet’s inability to tell a story, a novelist’s inability to provide consistent surprising metaphors. I became convinced that the membrane of genre is more malleable than perhaps a dominant narrative leads us to believe.
In the Winter of 2012, while living in Norway, I began reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, not only would this book become one of the most influential books to my writing, it would become my all time favorite novel, and in my opinion one of the greatest novels ever written. Marquez was my introduction to Magical Realism, he provided the poetic language and philosophy I so often yearned for in fiction while, unlike Kundera, applied a scope that was reminiscent of Tolkien, my first literary hero a decade before.
Marquez showed me how to craft a magical world without the escapism of fantasy. While One Hundred Years of Solitude is indeed fantastical, it takes no part in fantasy. The heartbreak, the war, the family dynamics are inexplicably real, and not simply because the writing is some of the best writing ever printed, but because every major event that happens is realistic, the world itself is realistic, its history and its people, and yet the details surrounding it all are magical. This magic is never out of place, but allows the reader to realize just how magical our own world is, just how impossible our lives, and our histories actually are. Marquez showed me how to use magic as a tool for exploration and illuminating truth rather than a tool for escape.
Interestingly enough, as someone who is best known as a poet and whose only published work is poetry, there is only one book on my list of my most important and influential books that is a book of poetry. Larry Levis is easily my favorite poet of all time, with the previously mentioned writers and books acting as a foundation, Levis opened the horizon and pulled me through it with his work. All of his books hold something irreplaceably important to me, but his book Winter Stars is the one which changed me as a writer forever. Of the many things that Levis does, his merger of lyric and narrative is one of my favorite. He approaches poetry with the mind and meter of a novelist, and the pen of a poet, he is a wanderer gazing out onto the horizon from the window seat of a train arcing over the world during an endless sunset. He writes in such a way wherein I feel as though I’m on this journey with him, one wherein I don’t always know where I am, but I never feel lost, I always feel as though the destination is just beyond reach, just a line away.
In part, his use of lyrical spinouts has been most influential for me. For instance, he might-in describing a woman’s eyes in a poem-describe the eye’s in relationship to the dim lights of a motel, and then he might enter the motel and describe the clerk, the patrons who stay there, what the walls are like, what music is playing, he then might recall a time he himself stayed within a motel similar to this one he has imagined and what happened there. Levis takes us deeper and deeper into the imagination, into what might be seen as a tangent, but isn’t, all without us ever losing the woman’s eyes, without forgetting where we are in the poem. In so doing he builds level after level and we see, in his poetry, the way our brains really work, and think, and remember, which is to say associatively. What thought do we ever have that is uninterrupted and not affected by memory, or context, or related idea?
Levis, in his long sweeping style, his controlled lyrical spinouts, his perfectly placed philosophies and vivid language allow us to move through time and landscape while moving through the hearts and memories of his narrators and his subjects. Often, in taking the reader far away from his subjects to then return, I leave a poem feeling closer to the the characters in one of his two or three page poems than I ever have in a six hundred page novel. Levis’ work gave me permission to take a journey as a part of my writing process, to wander but not be lost, to follow the associations until they return.
I have become fascinated by his use of lyrical spinouts, within my own writing I seek to see just how far I can take this construction, I want to know how far into a person’s eyes we can travel without ever losing sight of where we began. I want to write in a way that is not linear, because no life is linear, no thought, no recollection. I want to make magic out of simple words, and I want this magic to pull away from and then shine a light onto the world. I want to enter the mind and come back carrying gold and my own heart. I want to leave this place without ever going away, I want to go forever and always come back. I want each word to have its own echo and apogee. If each dark letter here is a shadow I want to find the source of light and then become it; I want to be so honest in my writing that even the lies tell some kind of truth. I want to dig up my grandfather’s grave and give every reader a single shard of bone. I want to locate the moon in the splintered ash of my memory, and guide us all home. I want to write both the map of the world and the fire which burns it. I want to say, we don’t know a thing about language yet-each letter is still a distant planet which we can barely see, though we swear we can feel each word humming at our fingertips. I want each word, even here, to be the smallest vibration against the hands.