The Mother of All Storytelling (Well, Mine, at Least)

Thinking about my writing influences, I make a beeline for Mark Twain—why not set your standards high? But then I mosey about some, bumping into Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to pick flowers from the same field as Mr. Clemens. But whether a writer’s echo can be heard in your work isn’t necessarily a mark of their sway over you. There are people whose writing I fiercely admire, like Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy or Annie Dillard, and the DNA of their superb stylings can’t be traced to my pratfalls on the page. (For that matter, I may have been influenced as much by Dr. Seuss, or maybe Steve Martin.)

But the original influence? That’s easy. That’s the woman up above, who is cracking up the nearby priest with some tale. That woman has been telling stories for a lot longer than me, and with more accomplishment. That woman is my mother. Before Sarge Bentley got his hands on her, she was Eileen O’Brien, and though Iowa cornfields were the setting for her growing up, I’m sure the storytellers of the Old Sod made their ancestral mark on her. And she on me.

From my earliest memories, I saw her absorbed in reading. Hey, books! They must be good. I want to do that too. She never pushed reading on me, but the obvious pleasure it afforded her was generously transferred to me. And because she could shape a story, could find the odd and often humorous angle on some episode of human folly, I was drawn to storytelling too.

Stories: 100% Nutritive, Taste Great Too
The absorbing thing is, my mom’s stories, like her life, have never been pocked with pettiness, or buzzing with the trivial, or interested in shoving someone aside so she could shine. As a writer, I tire myself with my own jealousies over other writers’ successes, with my own trivialities and peeves. My mother has never swum in that shallow end of the pool—she laughs at the human comedy, but there’s never been spite in her smiles.

So here’s to my mom, my biggest writing influence. The photo is from her 90th birthday party a couple of weeks ago, where she was surrounded by friends, young and old, who uniformly wished her well. She’s wearing those test-pilot’s welding glasses because she can barely see a damn thing anymore and light bothers her, but she still reads wielding a fat magnifier. Words—can’t get away from them. By her side is a priest from my old parish being entertained by her point of view (though the margarita he’s drinking may have helped).

Thanks Mom.

Bonus Prizes!
A couple of good things just happened to me between my sojourns from the Airstream office to my house. MediaBistro and GalleyCat have been hosting an online literary festival with live webinars sporting the likes of Susan Orlean, Rebecca Skloot and Elissa Schappell talking about aspects of writing. A pal told me that you could win free admission to the occasion by tweeting what you considered to be the best sentence you’ve ever written. Well, I thought “I will not take them soft or scrambled, despite an argument well-rambled” was pretty good, so I—no, I actually tweeted one of mine, and I won. The festival has been fantastic.

I also entered a contest to win a year’s admission and a bunch of other goodies in the Freelance Writer’s Den, just by writing a blog post. So I did, and was chosen as one of the co-winners. Lots of good writerly stuff there that I’m just digging into. I entered both of these on a whim, and whimsically enough, won. That does tell you to enter contests if you think you’ve got a shot—who knows what might happen?

Thanks again, Mom.

Mom and Dad, the Original Authors

The Bentleys in 1958

The Bentleys in 1958

I was going to write a post today about my writing influences, tossing a salad of Annie Dillard and Atwood, a tangled pasta of Twain and Fitzgerald, spicy sides of Nabokov and Vonnegut, a shot of Cormac McCarthy, neat. But then I thought that sounded a mite pretentious, as though I could even carry the keyboards of those authors (or even tilt Twain’s first typesetting machine, one of his legacy of infernal investments). And who’s to say that I wasn’t just as influenced by the comic books I devoured (I wanted to name a pet after Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer), or the sports magazines that filled my mind with shimmering baseball diamonds and long fly balls caught after an impossible run?

Influences are a tricky thing. Of course I think you should steal freely the scent of another author’s writing, that ungraspable soupçon of ephemera that is clumsily dubbed “style.” That’s because you’ll catch your tongue in the literary rat trap if you try to directly steal the substance of another’s writing. Mumbling out inane imitations will be your sorry fate. Snagging some stylings is more subtle theft, like being able to mimic the way an author buttons her coat, rather than actually buying—and eek!—wearing the same clothes.

Blood as Influence
But thinking of influences made me think of other influences from way back: my parents. I have so much to be grateful for in having a mother who didn’t harangue me and my siblings about reading as a necessity, but instead, took so much pleasure in reading herself. You’ll develop a hunger for something in watching another eagerly eat it. There were always books around the house, and the relaxed sense that wiling away some hours nose-deep in a tome wasn’t a way to waste time but to explore it: books are time travels, the widest carpets of brilliant flowers on the steppes, a landowner’s cruel glance at the starveling slave, the wince from a princess as she turns her delicate ankle stepping from the liveried carriage. My mother welcomingly invited me into that parlor of pleasant musings and savage astonishments, and I haven’t looked back. And see my mother, nearly blind at 88, still reading for pleasure. Why? Because she enjoys the sound of the words in her head, the images, the story. I know; she taught me.

My father wasn’t a big reader, more inclined to the peppered nuggets of the newspaper than the seven-course meals of Russian novels, but again, I might never have been the reader, and thus the writer, that I am had he not schooled me in how to throw a baseball, how to shoot a basketball, things that impelled me to read biography after biography of my sports heroes (and to admire the tight turns-of-phrase of gifted sportswriters).

I was struck recently, in watching my father slowly work to pull off the tinfoil cover of a yogurt cup, how we have some of the same traits. My father is 93, and richly caped in the folds of his Alzheimer’s, yet some crossbeams of character persist. He can still haltingly feed himself, and I watched in fascination as he was slowly spooning yogurt into his mouth. Eyes barely open, he noticed that the tinfoil lid that covered the cup was still attached, and he very s-l-o-w-l-y worked it off with his weakened hands. It took a while, and visible effort, but I could see the small satisfaction in his face when he succeeded in removing it from the cup.

The Gene Pool of Picking Nits
That resonated with me, because I am a nitpicker, literally one who will spot the tiny bits of fluff on the carpet and bend to pick them up, and metaphorically so in my work as an editor, trying to manage errant (or arrogant) punctuation marks, making sure there aren’t two spaces when there should be one. Floating deeply in his condition, his language now restricted to short, sometimes muddy sentences, my father still notices some detail: “Why is that car door open?” in reference to a car parked outside, a reminder of my own fussiness about details. My father, editing the hanging lid, the out-of-place open car door. Writing, while ever the work of the lone temperament, in the interior of imagination’s house, always has an ear turned to hear the voices that populated the rooms in times past.

Whatever writing I do, my parents’ pulse beats along with mine.

Oh yeah, the picture: my parents, my siblings and me, approximately one thousand years ago. I’m the blond-haired punk, hoping against hope that I’ll get a cookie to take the pain out of this dreadful photo session. Those other kids are just troublemakers.

Reaping (And Writing) from Other Writer’s Sowings

Yep. I wrote this whole post with this pencil, and scanned it in, just for you.

I get a daily email from Shelf Awareness (its tagline is “Daily enlightenment for the book trade”) that’s a compendium of publishing/bookstore/author news and literary tidbits of all flavors. One of my favorite sections is called Book Brahmin, where they interview authors, publishers and scruffy roustabouts of the book trade with a series of questions about what books they are currently reading and the like. Since it might be a while before Shelf Awareness gets around to me with their penetrating, nosy literary interrogation, I thought I’d prepare a little something in advance. Here are the things they ask their trembling interlocutors:

On your nightstand now:
I’m a stacker, so there’s always a tower of tomes, some of which I nibble at, some of which I doggedly hike through, and some of which I devour. There’s Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, juicy literary stuff. There’s Monterey Bay and Beyond, kind of like a historical tour guide of points of interest and attractions on California’s central coast. Also, Haunted Baseball, a sort of silly nonfiction work on ghosts and haints frequenting major and minor league stadiums—I’m a sucker for baseball books.

Providing weighty dignity to the mix is The Workshop, Seven Decades of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which is a collection of essays, stories and mismatched oddments from graduates of the country’s most prestigious academic writing program. Great stuff, but at nearly 800 pages, a wrestling match. And my newest (and oldest): Plain Facts: For Young Women on Marijuana, Narcotics, Liquor and Tobacco. It’s a 1938 publication (with chapter titles like “Maybelle the Doper” and “Are Smoking Women Attractive”) that seeks to keep our womanhood pure and simpleheaded. Er, simple hearted. Well, wholesome. (By the way, on that “Smoking Women” issue: smoking women should be extinguished, not excoriated.)

Lastly, the good ol’ Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition. Check it out sometime: you won’t believe how many ding-dang words are in there!

Favorite book when you were a child

I was nutzoid for dinosaur books as a kid, and graduated to baseball books, but one of the books that made an early impression on me for its bookish qualities was The Phantom Tollbooth. The author, Norton Juster, really let readers know just how durn fun it is to play with words, twist ’em, poke ’em and plead with them for mercy.

Your top five authors

One of those answers that might change with the lunch menu, but: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut

Book you’ve faked reading

I was one of those kids who brought paperbacks to school to tuck into my textbook while other classes were going on. Thus, every math book I was ever given, I’ve faked reading. (Two plus two? Don’t even ask.)

Book you’re an evangelist for

Well, books: Plainsong, by Kent Haruf and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Exquisite use of language and pinpoint characterizations. Several of Annie Dillard’s works also invite you to drink in the intoxications of language (and remarkable word-clusterings in a syntactical sense too).

Book you’ve bought for the cover
Probably Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s a graphic novel whose cover displays Ware’s remarkably intricate mastery of perspective and detail in a unique style. The book is beautifully rendered (and terribly sad).

Book that changed your life

There are many (I’m fickle), but one early influence was Hesse’s Siddhartha, which made a spiritual, contemplative life very appealing to a 15-year-old boy, which is something of a miracle. Even now, I admire the rhythms of its simply stated philosophical persuasions.

Favorite line from a book
Again, impossible to pin down, but this one sticks with me: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald’s last line from Gatsby. It’s a lot like Faulkner’s, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” in its sense that our selves of the present are indelibly etched by the selves of our past.

Book you most want to read again for the first time
Huck Finn. That book gave me indescribable pleasure when I first read it (and still does, but being a virgin to it again sounds like a tantalizing joy). The richness of the language, the laugh-out-loud characters, the development of Huck and Jim’s bond, the lyrical movement down the river, rich with sensuous detail and meaningful metaphor—wow!

So, now you know. Shelf Awareness, call me anytime. Anybody else, feel free to tell me what’s on your nightstand (or hidden in your nightshirt…).