Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mentors, Muses, and Monsters, edited by Elizabeth Benedict

The subtitle of this book, 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, describes well its content--except that some of the chapters are about books or places rather than people. Still, most of the authors--some extremely well known (Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gordon, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Anita Shreve, Julia Glass), others less so--do write about the people who most influenced them as writers.

Many of the authors write about teachers. For example, Alexander Chee writes about Annie Dillard, who taught him that "while I had spoken English all my life, there was actually very little I knew about it." He recounts her "fugues" on writing, as well as some of the exercises she assigned, the clothes she wore, and the way she smoked a cigarette and drank coffee from a thermos. By the time he had finished studying with Dillard, Chee "wanted to be her."

Julia Glass describes how she yearned for an editor who would be a taskmaster, someone along the lines of Maxwell Perkins. Yet, when her actual editor turns out to be a thoroughly nice poet named Deb, who "resists the easy cynicism that preys on most people involved in 'creative' pursuits" and is, in fact, the perfect collaborator for Glass.

Other writers pay tribute to writers or books who inspired them. Cheryl Strayed reflects on the importance Alice Munro held for her; Strayed studied "how she moved her characters in and out of a room, how she conveyed an emotion or a moment just so." When Strayed finally has the opportunity to meet Munro, she is unable to speak to her. Some inspirations are unexpected: Martha Southgate cites Harriet the Spy and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as books that shaped her work.

Of course, not every influence was entirely positive. Lily Tuck's description of the tutelage of Gordon Lish puts him squarely in the monster category (at least in my view), where I also regretfully place Susan Sontag on the basis of Sigrid Nunez's essay. Even from "monsters," however, much was learned.

I found this a fascinating look into the sources of inspiration and the way in which writers read. After reading how these writers dissect a passage from a favorite writer makes me all too aware of how blind I generally am to the subtleties of the writing in the books I read. I'm inspired to read more closely (although perhaps lacking the skill to do so), be more aware of the author's work as I read.

Favorite passages:
You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you'd be wrong. What I saw on the page was that hte voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.

Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.

Alexander Chee, "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life"

...in the world's grays and sepias, in its shadows and lonely nights, a fine beauty is visible to the eye that stays open.

Denis Johnson, "On Fat City"

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