The Writing Allstars – Seamus Heaney

If you have the words , there’s always a chance you’ll find the way. (Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney)

I was introduced to Heaney during my Irish Lit class. His was the smallest book in the pile, sitting atop a rather heavy stack as I stood in line to purchase my texts for the semester. As I flipped through the pages, I was immediately captivated. In fact, I lost track of where I was and it took several aggressive throat clearings and a few repetitions of “I can help the next person” before I came back to the bookstore. I may have read ahead of the rest of the class that day; I may have even finished the book in a few hours, guzzling coffee and highlighting the lines that moved me. Dissecting his work in class was just as enjoyable. I loved listening to my teachers affected lilt as she read through the passages, loved hearing the ideas that came from other students, loved the feeling that he brought with him, in the classroom, in my being. It was as if the world opened up before him and he was able to direct my attention to wonderful and weird things I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. And I loved him for it.

I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world. (This Week, 2004)

There wasn’t a poem I read that I couldn’t connect to in some way. There were dark ones and light. There were heavy, somber ones that made me wonder why they needed to be written at all, they dredged up such deep emotions. There were light, happy ones that made me glad to feel the sun on my face and made my heart smile. They were the poems of Ireland. Exquisite highs and lows all wrapped up in a beautiful turn of phrase. Words that cut you to the quick while healing you at the same time. Words and contradictions and raw beauty and power and sadness. Oh how I wished I could write like that! To take the emotions of a lifetime and let them come to life in a few, short, perfect sentences.

Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. (Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996)

Heaney had a way of balancing you on borders. He was all things, or at least, had been all things. It was his strength, the balancing act. It was what gave him the ability to immediately relate to a moment and to relate it back to you, in your moment. Henri Cole said it best in his article that was published after the death of this great poet:

Heaney was a poet of the in-between…writing from a zone somewhere between north and south, between Catholic and Protestant, between Ireland, England, and America, between formal and free verse, between public and private, between realism and allegory, and between plain speech and loading “every rift with ore,” while also balancing the gravitas of his subject matter with the frolic and grace of poetic language. (The New Yorker, August 2013)

It is from this place in the middle of things that Heaney made sense of the “sides” that surrounded him, that surround us. It is only by refusing to belong to one thing or the other that frees us to see the truth of what is. Heaney was a master of finding the space where truth resided, and taking us there with him.

The main thing is to write /for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust/that imagines its haven like your hands at night/dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast./You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous./Take off from here. (Station Island)

Because of Seamus Heaney, I learned to find the space between the lines and stand for truth. Because of Heaney, I realized that I don’t have to reconcile my opposites but can live balanced between them. Because of Seamus Heaney, I rediscovered Yeats and JM Synge. Because of Seamus Heaney, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – James Thurber

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life. (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 2013)

I broke a cardinal rule to bring you that quote. That quote is not found in Thurber’s original story; it’s only in the movie. And I never, ever, ever go to see movies based on/connected to/influenced by books or stories that I love. Never. This is the first time since I made myself that promise that I have gone to see a movie based on a book. Why did I go? Why did I break my cardinal life rule? Because I didn’t like Thurber’s ending. I love nothing more than a dark, deep, depressing story with characters that struggle and die and do so with beauty and poise. I love characters that become or remain trapped in the banality of their sad little lives. I love social, relational, psychological, or religious commentaries. But for some reason, being dropped into Mr. Mitty’s predicament and then plucked from it after seeing no change just rubbed me the wrong way. This man, who compensates for his miserable and mundane external life with a rich and meaningful inner life, doesn’t get a moment. He doesn’t get that chance to have the inner and outer lives overlap, to feel the breathless excitement that comes from being in the right place at the right time, and getting your deepest desires. And he needed that.

The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets. (The 13 Clocks)

My love of Thurber doesn’t end with Mr. Mitty, either. Everyone and their brother needs to read The 13 Clocks, needs to own The 13 Clocks. I am completely obsessed with this book. I give it as a gift to everyone with children or a childlike spirit. Thurber’s ability to infuse a story with elements of poetry, whimsy, and wonder is unmatched! You can almost hear him speaking the line aloud, tasting the words, writing them down because they feel right in his mouth. It is the perfect fairy-tale and it only solidified my appreciation for Thurber’s style and approach. I marveled at his ability to spin words together, to say so very much truth in such a beautiful way. There is magic here, and darkness, and honor, and truth, and beauty.

All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why. (The Shore and the Sea, Further Fables for Our Time)

Mixed in with the magic and beauty of Thurber’s story is a deeply honest sense of humor. Maybe it is more effective because he believed that it should be clear and obvious, rather than mysterious and confusing. So often, writers rely on obscure references that end with the reader feeling as if they are on the outside of an inside joke. Thurber never made me work to see the humor in his stories. He used it in moments of raw honesty, moments I could relate to because I too had lived through them. He made it easier to laugh at myself and my circumstances because his humor promised relief in the end. His dry sense of wit, his perceptive commentary on life and marriage and imagination and dreams, his matter-of-fact delivery, made Thurber the complete package for me.

Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.(The 13 Clocks)

Because of James Thurber, I learned to laugh at the nonsense that life brought my way. Because of Thurber, I realized that humor can unite and heal. Because of James Thurber, I fell in love with Daniel Handler, Norton Juster, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Because of James Thurber, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Carl Jung

All the works of man have their origin in creative imagination. What right, then, have we to disparage fantasy? (Collected Works Vol. 16)

I realize it may seem strange to have the founder of analytical psychology in a list of authors who have influenced my writing but Jung may have done so more than all my other favorites combined. I will never forget sitting down in my first honors English class, all of us spread around the room on couches, pillows, the floor of the Write Place with coffees and notebooks and small, beautifully illustrated hardbound copies of books that reflected the four archetypes we would study that semester. I was nervous but excited and as my professor slowly outlined Jung’s ideas on the whiteboard and something in me came to life. Here was an acknowledgement of the darkness, an acceptance of the sadness, a celebration of those elements that make happiness and joy that much sweeter. Here was the idea that all of humanity is connected deeply to one another, past, present, future, experiencing reality through a collective unconscious. Here was a promise that conflict was actually a necessary part of life and that only through conflict could wholeness come. I was completely captivated. It resonated so very deep in me, reminding me of things I had already known to be true.

Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and myth cannot be made out of any science. For it is not that “God” is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man. (Memories, Dreams, and Reflections)

The power that Jung had as a writer was in his ability to boil complicated truths and profound theories into honest, earnest, meaningful moments. He didn’t spend his time finding the most intelligent (read, the most complicated) ways of saying things, rather I could feel that his desire was for the reader to thoroughly understand his terms and phrases and join him on his journey into individualization. Jung was able to put form to ideas, to make them tangible, to make them knowable and by doing so was able to help me know myself. And isn’t that what we are all looking for when we read? Don’t we see ourselves in our literary friends, heroes and villains alike? We look for ourselves in the patterns of stories, the archetypes of literature, to solidify our understanding of both our selves and the world around us. That is the gift that Jung has given us, has given me.

The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it. (Modern Man in Search of a Soul)

The intricacies of life explained with the simplest of words, to say more by saying less, to guide without directing, that is where Jung excelled and where I want to follow in his footsteps. To think long and hard before the words come. To put pen to paper only after working it out for myself. Because within all fictions are truths and I want to be sure the ones found in my stories will resonate into the deepest recesses of the reader. I want them to find the best aspects of themselves in my heroes and overcome the worst through my villains. I want them to walk away changed, as I did after reading Jung, because they encountered the beast within…and they triumphed. We should all be heroes, even just for a little while.

Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. (Memories, Dreams, and Reflections)

Because of Carl Jung, I recognized the value of turning within and embracing the shadowy regions of my soul. Because of Carl Jung, I realized that all of human history stands with me at any given moment, lending me their knowledge and experience to aid me. Because of Carl Jung, I learned to wait, to revel in the machinations of the mind, before writing word one. Because of Carl Jung, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Shel Silverstein

“Once I spoke the language of the flowers/Once I understood each word the caterpillar said/Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings/And shared a conversation with the house fly in my bed/Once I heard and answered all the questions of the crickets/And joined the crying of each falling dying flake of snow/Once I spoke the language of the flowers…/How did it go?/How did it go? (Where the Sidewalk Ends)

Shel Silverstein had a way of making me feel like a grown-up when I first read his poems. It was as if he and I shared a secret past – something great and dark and serious but funny at the same time. It was reminiscent of Dahl and left the same satisfied taste in my mouth as I devoured his words. He made me feel as if I had, in the days before this one, possessed some great power, something that linked me to other children all over the world who were experiencing this same wistful feeling in their bellies as they turned the pages of his books. There was something magical about the feel of the paper, the sound of its crispness as it brushed across my thumb, like a spark of remembrance, a spark of potential. He made me feel significant and powerful and important, so very important.

“She had blue skin,/And so did he./He kept it hid/And so did she./They searched for blue/Their whole life through,/Then passed right by-/And never knew.” (Every Thing on It)

I think the reason it was so easy to connect with the poems Shel wrote was because of the honesty and transparency he used to talk about real life. Not the life my parents told me was real, not the things my peers or teachers talked to me about, not my hopes and dreams and naive plans for the future. Real life. The messy, sad, exquisite, brilliant, madcap, hilarious trip that is life. He didn’t pull punches because I was a child, he didn’t try to sugar coat his messages, but he wasn’t out to ruin me, to crush the hope right out of me. He celebrated simplicity and innocence but appreciated the fact that life was complicated and strange. He was comfortable with dichotomy and made me realize that maybe life shouldn’t be lived as an “either/or” reality but approached with a “both/and” mentality. Life isn’t either pain or pleasure, it’s pain and pleasure. It’s highs and lows, wins and losses, all smushed up together and it’s only through honest examination of our experiences that we can come to see which is which.

“There is a voice inside of you/That whispers all day long/I feel this is right for me/I know that this is wrong/No teacher, preacher, parent, friend/Or wise man can decide/What’s right for you-just listen to/The voice that speaks inside.” (Falling Up)

I love the way that Silverstein was able to marry the whimsy and delight of childhood to a more somber and heavy material without losing his audience. As a child, I felt like I was being ushered into a secret, a secret my parents would like to have kept hidden. As a parent, I wish those secrets would stay hidden from my children. I wish that they would never know the pain of hiding their true selves, that they would never wonder “whatif”, that they would be free from depression and angst and lost loves. Silverstein seemed to have experienced it all and was able to strike just the right balance of sweetness and suffering.

“A spider lives inside my head/Who weaves a strange and wondrous web/Of silken threads and silver strings/To catch all sorts of flying things/Like crumbs of thoughts and bits of smiles/And specks of dried-up tears/And dust of dreams that catch and cling/For years and years and years.” (Every Thing on It)

Because of Shel Silverstein, I learned that there are always deeper truths buried just under the surface of both words and people. Because of Shel Silverstein, I realized that books truly can connect people across time and space. Because of Shel Silverstein, I re-read Dahl and Aiken. Because of Shel Silverstein, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Edith Wharton

Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing. (The Age of Innocence)

My introduction to Edith Wharton was short and sweet. It was a story about two mothers and their conversations regarding their past and their futures as they dealt with their grown children while on holiday. I think it was called Roman Fever. I think it was brilliantly written. I think the dialogue sparkled. All of that is fuzzy. But what I do remember as clear as day is the last sentence of the story. What I remember is reading, late at night, from a hardbound collection of short stories while my second born daughter nursed. The light was on low and my husband was asleep. Gentle snores and the sound of pages turning my only companions. I was reading faster and faster as the tension was building between the two mothers and then, Mrs. Ansley dropped her bombshell, calmly and gently, and my mouth dropped open. I read and re-read the sentences, making sure I was right. What an ending! I woke my husband up and read him the entire story. I still think about that night, especially when I have writer’s block. I think, I want to blow them away with the unexpected, just like that.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. (A Backward Glance)

Wharton had a way of infusing her stories with wit and lightness and grace that reminded me of a less somber Christie. While her material is just as heavy (House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, am I right?) she is able to leave the reader with an uplifted spirit due to her incredible use of humor. Wharton’s novels give the overall feeling that she really rather liked the world and was amused, rather than disgusted, at the facades and follies people engaged in to achieve their own ends. She was a master of setting a stage, relaying a conversation, making it all appear above-board all the while showing the seamy undercurrent of deception and desperation that lies at the heart of all conflict.

But I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes. (The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton)

Edith Wharton was a master at leaving the important things unsaid, all the while drawing the reader’s attention to them. It is in her characters looks, in their surface conversations, in the way they interact with their surroundings, that shows us the truth of what lies beneath our first glance. She could infer so much with a simple question about the weather, or what someone wore to a party. And by doing so, she made us complicit. She allowed the reader to discover the hidden meanings, the deep dark truths about humanity veneered over with a thin coating of respectability. We were the detectives, putting the puzzle together, finding the answers, understanding our selves through her characters. She caused us to question if we were as impenetrable as we once thought. And it is that ability that I seek to employ in my own writing; to cause the reader to question themselves and the world around them in the hopes that they discover something new.

We live in our own souls as in an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for our habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us we know but the boundaries that march with ours. (The Touchstone)

Because of Edith Wharton I look deeper than the surface when I interact with the world around me. Because of Edith Wharton I can smile at the idiosyncracies in myself and others. Because of Edith Wharton I found Henry James and Theodore Dreiser. Because of Edith Wharton, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Kate Chopin

Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions. (The Awakening)

I confess that the first time I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening I wasn’t sure how to feel. I was young and single and childless and I believed that a mother’s duty was to give up everything for the sake of her children. Edna’s struggle to find herself in the midst of motherhood was foreign to me, perhaps because I had no children and I was quite sure of who I was in the grander scheme of things. Oh youth! My second encounter, during my return to college, found me married with a child and another on the way and suddenly, Edna’s struggles made sense. I don’t think I have ever read a book that spoke to me so directly at such a perfect time. While the ending of the book may lead you to worry about me, don’t. My conclusions are much different from Edna’s; but we do share the struggle between selfhood and motherhood and how to find balance on a line the width of a thread.

He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. (The Awakening)

Kate Chopin liked to write about deep, dark things. Things that are inside of us all, things that we would never acknowledge, things we can’t talk about. She was consumed with the splits of personality that accompany being woman. The self that we present to the world, all the facets polished and socially acceptable, and the self that lies below, the true self. Ornery and offensive, gasping to breathe. Her short stories like A Pair of Silk Stockings, The Story of an Hour, and A Respectable Woman, continue this focus on the yearning for freedom. They zero in on the moment a women discovers herself again in the midst of her life. The tragedy in her stories is not the divided self, but that her characters can rarely integrate the two aspects of their lives and live on, powerful and whole.

There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.

There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why—when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation. (The Awakening)

Chopin is a feminist in that she is a woman, writing about women, and it is clear that she loves us. She loves the way we think, the way we arrive at a decision. She loves our strength and our softness. And she gives the internal struggle that lies in each of our hearts a voice. A strong, clear, hopeful voice. Her stories may leave us with a mess, but isn’t life messy? It is enough to know that we are not alone in our struggles. We have many sisters that walk this path with us, balancing delicately between the apparent self and the authentic self. It is in knowing we are not alone that we can elicit a different outcome from those of Chopin’s characters. We can overcome the struggles of being woman together, and that is a powerful gift to give.

Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life. (The Awakening)

Because of Kate Chopin, I found that I am not alone in the struggle to balance my selves. Because of Kate Chopin, I learned the necessity of finding that balance. Because of Kate Chopin I fell in love with Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. Because of Kate Chopin, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Jack London

But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called — called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come. (The Call of the Wild)

I remember meeting the writing of Jack London during high school. For my birthday, my aunt gave me hard-backed, illustrated copies of two classics: Black Beauty and Call of the Wild. I adored Black Beauty (though I thought my heart would break when Ginger was carted away, tongue lolling) but Call of the Wild was another story all together. To me, it was a boring, dragging, adventureless tale of wilderness and wild. I didn’t like the dog as narrator, though the horse posed no problem, and I thought the ending was a stretch. All in all, I wasn’t really left with a favorable impression. Looking back on that experience, I wonder if it’s really best to require kids to read stories like Call of the Wild. I wonder if it sours them on authors whose works are so much deeper than they realize. I am so glad that I got the chance to try London again because he had so much more to offer me than I was able to understand at the tender age of 14.

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances…[they] did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature…, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. (To Build A Fire)

Older and, hopefully, wiser I ran into London again in an American Lit class at university. It was an evening class in the basement of the English building complete with flickering fluorescent lights, yellow tiled floors, and an instructor who was nearing his early eighties. We covered Whitman and Twain and all was well. And then came London. A short story. To Build a Fire. And in an instant, I was converted. Maybe because the tale was morbid and, therefore, instantly appealing to me. Maybe it was because I was attending college in the mountains and we were buried in snow all winter. Whatever the reason, there in the uncomfortable plastic chairs, surrounded by high, unwashed freshmen, I fell in love with Jack London.

Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes playing a poor hand well. (To Build a Fire)

Critics say that London is at his best in his shorter works and I have to agree. He takes the classic man vs. nature to new heights, inferring that man has strayed so far from his roots, embracing intellectualism over instinct, that he no longer has any instincts whatsoever. This lack of sense will make nature the winner every time. Nature is powerful and indifferent, caring nothing at all for those who seek to conquer it, cycling through its seasons with no thought of us. Rather than see this as a negative, depressing reality, London was able to inspire his readers with the comfort and security this knowledge brings with it. We are small and insignificant against a magnificent backdrop, but it is a beautiful and wonderful existence.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. (The Bulletin)

Because of Jack London, I looked at my role in the world in a new way. Because of Jack London, I embraced my finiteness and let it show through in my writing. Because of Jack London, I found Conrad and Kipling. Because of Jack London, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Pablo Neruda

I love all things, not because they are passionate or sweet-smelling but because…all bear the trace of someone’s fingers on their handle or surface, the trace of a distant hand lost in the depths of forgetfulness. (Ode to Common Things)

I have my mother-in-law to thank for my introduction to Pablo Neruda. She gave my husband a copy of Ode to Common Things for Christmas years before we met. The note on the faceplate tells of her unplanned trip into the bookstore and the distinct feeling she had that the book was meant to be with Nathan, that there were messages within he needed to hear. I have no doubt of it. There were messages in it that I needed to hear. Messages of magic in the mundane. Neruda elevated all the small things that make our lives wonderful, all the things that we overlook, and brought them to life. He exalts the tomato and the onion, a bar of soap and a pair of scissors,  a violin and a table. What other poet has been able to make such commonplace things sparkle with meaning? His ability to breathe beauty into the givens was incredibly refreshing and sparked my own versions of the Odes. Through his eyes I saw my ordinary life in new ways.

From having been born so often/I have salty experience/like creatures of the sea/with a passion for stars/and an earthy destination (Autumn Testament)

Neruda’s other works also acknowledge the commonplace and hint at the deep desire we have for a place to belong. The poems seem to speak of the chaos around us and our grasping to make order in the midst of it. Perhaps because Neruda was denied the solitude that most writers have, his poems are laced with a deep sense of longing both for peace and for love. He was not a philosophical poet, but an opinionated one, always seeking to connect with everyday people and their passions. His sparse words paint breathtaking images of loneliness and longing, revealing the emotions that lie in all of our hearts and connecting us to one another through words.

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips; maybe it was the voice of the rain crying, a cracked bell, or a torn heart. (100 Love Sonnets)

Reading Neruda makes me feel, simple as that. He awakens feelings that have been pushed aside in accordance with societal expectations. He reminds us of desire, longing, passion for something more, something meaningful even in the midst of the humdrum. He exalts our daily moments to something almost godlike. We are not simply sleeping in our beds. We are reminded that life and death occur there. Our beginning and our end, stretched out on a mattress that has seen a thousand sleeps. Neruda reminds us that it is all important. It all matters because it is life, and life matters.

Let’s try and avoid death in small doses,
reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing. (The Eternal Return)

Because of Pablo Neruda, I learned to cherish my moments. Because of Pablo Neruda, I saw beauty in a different light. Because of Pablo Neruda, I found ee cummings and Roberto Bolano. Because of Pablo Neruda, I am the writer I am today.

The Writing Allstars – Donna Tartt

The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone. (D. Tartt)

I’ve been dreading this post for weeks. How to put into words the feelings I have for this author, for her first brilliant novel, the book I re-read each year. It came to me on a whim, slipped into my hand on a dark stage by my English professor with the assurance that I would love it. And I did. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this novel has made a lasting impact on me, that it has changed the way I see everything, that it swept me off my feet and, in an instant, became my all time favorite book. It isn’t about the story (though that in itself is amazing) it’s more the author’s ability to subject the reader to the full range of human emotions through characters with whom, at first, you connect to body and soul. You don’t just read about Camilla and Charles, Richard and Henry, Bunny and Julian. You become them. You feel what they feel, speak as they speak, act as they act and in that one pivotal moment, you must despise yourself. Tartt takes what you think you know of yourself, turns it on its head, and all you can do is go along for the ride.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell. (The Secret History)

Beauty. The thread that runs through each of Tartt’s novels, the thread that catches us up, tangles us in her fictions, holds us hostage, is the pursuit of the beautiful. She reminds us of our rabid desire, our insatiable need for beauty and its aching lack in our lives. It is those stolen moments in the midst of the bustle, glances, whispers, colors, moving just out of sight, in our peripheral vision, stealing into our soul and reminding it to breathe. Tartt faces down sense and time and duty and erases their shadows from the face of our souls. She brings back the feelings of hope and desire and adventure. Though her stories may take us down a different path, to outcomes dark and dangerous, she manages still to awaken our spirits and allow them to feed deeply at the well of beauty.

Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? (The Goldfinch)

Crafting these feelings that seem to transcend the actual story took Tartt years, for each novel. Every time her stories were met with awe and enthusiasm and every time it seemed that book would be the last. Six years later, another masterpiece would make its way into the world, into the waiting hands of her readers. Tartt taught me that good things are worth waiting for; worth working and reworking. She stands in opposition to the quick drafts, the one edits, the scramble for publication. She speaks to my fears and assures me it’s better to get it right, no matter how long it takes. It’s better to craft a masterpiece.

Not quite what one expected, but once it happened one realized it couldn’t be any other way. (The Secret History)

Because of Donna Tartt I realized that a dark and haunting story can still be full of beauty and redemption. Because of Tartt I learned that what seems to be a flaw can hide our deepest strengths. Because of her I returned to Poe and Dickens. Because of Donna Tartt I am the writer I am today.

 

 

 

The Writing Allstars – Jane Austen

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. (Northanger Abbey)

I’ve always loved Jane Austen. At the present time, I own three hardcover and two paperback versions of Pride and Prejudice and four of them are within an arms reach of my writing desk. I don’t think it is possible for me to love another of her books more, since this was my introduction to her witty and sarcastic commentary on what it is to be human. I wanted to be Elizabeth Bennett and can still remember staying up late, a flashlight on under the covers, to find out what would become of her and Mr. Darcy. Oh! how I loathed Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley and how I cringed when sweet Charlotte married horrid Mr. Collins out of fear of becoming a burden to her family. I turned page after page with bated breath waiting to see if Mr. Bingley would be brave enough to voice his intentions and if Jane would accept them. It is a rollercoaster of a story with a predictable ending. It is a story of love and pride and friendship and sisterhood. It is a story from my girlhood and I’ll love it til I die!

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken. (Emma)

Perhaps one of the reasons I love her so dearly is because she tricked us. Her stories, full of witty dialogue and dances, sisters and secrets, seem to be stories for our entertainment. The reality of the matter is that underneath all of the irony and wit, Austen is showing us how people think. She sets up her characters, layers upon layers of personality, and then lets you peer right through them. She lets you see the good, the bad, and the ugly and shows you what is worthy of your attention; she shows you yourself. You judge Emma or Fanny Price, only to realize that in doing so, you have become like them. This is Austen’s strength, to make us complicit in the sins of her characters and so to reveal our hidden selves.

One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best. (Persuasion)

I love the way that Austen can lay out so clearly the character of a person, all bare bones and angles, and yet show you something so much more substantial. Her images are so true that they become reflections of the reader, revealing our humanity on a deeper level. She unites us in our vices and begs us to become something better. She preaches, but she does so beautifully.

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library. (Pride and Prejudice)

Because of Jane Austen I learned that sarcasm is an art form. Because of Austen I realized that the mundane can be miraculous. Because of her I found Edgeworth and Alcott. Because of Jane Austen I am the writer I am today.