A conversation with a friend this past week about how parents influence their adult children sparked ongoing musings about influential things or people. We are influenced on a daily basis by what we see, hear, taste, feel, smell and experience through interactions with the physical world and the other creatures, human and otherwise, that share it with us. Politicians actively try to influence our thinking and choices as do advertisers. My computer can influence my mood depending on whether or not it works. Meeting someone new can influence how and what I think about the world and my place in it. One of my life’s goals has been to make a positive contribution to human life, whether on a local community or on a broader level. I had not thought of that contribution as something that could possibly influence people, however. But writers do influence people, including other writers.
It begins in childhood. Oddly, my favorite book before I started school was Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. I loved rabbits. My parents and grandmothers read a lot of books to me, most I don’t recall now. But I do remember Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that my mother read to me before bed. Was not having nightmares from it a sign that I’d grow up to be a writer? I still have the copy my mother read to me. I also still have the copy of Winnie the Pooh I had as a child. But then, there was my Grandma Yager who spun the most fascinating stories about the time before she married when she worked as a teacher. She had traveled to the Southwest and taught the Navajo how to read and write — those who wanted to learn. Her stories of her friendship with a Navajo family and her experiences living with them informed my understanding and love of storytelling.
Then fantasy and science fiction invaded my world. I’m not sure now how exactly it happened, although I suspect it was from watching science fiction B movies on rainy Saturday afternoons as well as learning fairy tales. I remember being enchanted by Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy novels, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Ray Bradbury’s stories and especially his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I wrote my first short story in sixth grade, inspired by the grate over a sewer. It was called One Way Track and was set on a jungle planet whose inhabitants had one wheel instead of two legs. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Stanley, delighted that I’d written a story, read it aloud to the class. It was so successful, I wrote more space travel stories, but eventually my classmates tired of them because of the ever present countdowns to rocket blast-offs in each one.
Junior high and high school demanded a different kind of reading, i.e. required reading for class. Gone were the Scholastic Book Club and reading comprehension modules. In strode Shakespeare, Melville and Hawthorne. But I read voraciously outside of class, spending many a Saturday afternoon in the city library searching for novels and biographies. One book during high school that has stayed with me was Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It kindled a life-long love for Russian literature. Other books that haunt memory: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I remember reading classics like Little Women, too, and I enjoyed them, but my interests gravitated toward the adult fiction section of the library in addition to required reading. My senior year in high school, my English teacher gave me an independent study to do: read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and research and write the answers to a list of questions about the book that he and the English Department Chairman gave me. I devoured that novel twice. I loved it as I loved Dubliners the following year in college. Their questions taught me how to deconstruct a novel and explore the cultural and societal influences on it — in Joyce’s case, the Catholic Church in Ireland and Greek mythology.
Literature wasn’t the only influence on my writing and life, in the past or now. Next week, more books that influenced me (and still do) as well as influences from other places….