As writers, I suspect we all have the memory of reading a book or story that made us stop and think for the first time, “I want to do this.” Then there are the heart-breaking books that make us think, “I’ll never be able to do this!” Then, if we’re really lucky, we find that little gem that reignites our soul and makes us jump up and say “I want to do this, I can do this and why the hell aren’t I doing this Right Now?!”
Let me back up a little. I’m one of those geeks who knew since second grade that I wanted to write books. The inspiring book was “Harold the Hermit Crab” (I don’t remember the exact title, but I remember watching a documentary about the couple who created it). Back then, drawing pictures was as important as writing in the story-making process, but it was the creation of my very own world that hooked me. Writing became my little gift, the talent that set me apart, and I gloried in the joy of gold stars and teachers’ looks of relief as a student actually Took An Interest.
Flash forward to The University. No more gold stars. In my first creative writing class, I earned—ahem—a C. No matter how hard I tried, I could not write like Hemmingway, Steinbeck or any of those other Great Men that my college instructors encouraged me to emulate. How I struggled to make my writing elegant, pithy and profound. The Great Men’s masterful skill at composing sentences and their brilliance at touching on deep and IMPORTANT topics led me to set an impossibly high bar for my craft. Bowing beneath the pressure of academia, I repressed my natural inclination to create fantasy worlds full of dragons and wizards and stick to ‘what I knew’, which at 22 wasn’t much.
After four years of lackluster progress, on the cusp of graduation, I informed my writing professor that I was considering applying to the Creative Writing graduate program. He sadly shook his head. “Oh, no, you’re not ready,” he said. I even remember him putting his head in his hand, so deep was his despair at the thought.
He was probably right, I wasn’t ready, but back then, staring into the maw of a future that I had not prepared for, being single-mindedly intent on making a living as a writer and nothing else, his discouragement blew me out of the shallow puddle I was thrashing around in.
It wasn’t like I gave up on the spot, but the poison had taken root. My spontaneous writing withered. I dropped the age-old habit of carrying a notebook with me at all times. I embraced alcohol a little too tightly (At least I could give Hemmingway a run for his money on that front). Life passed, and a time came when I did not write at all. I was frozen, for I had nothing IMPORTANT to say.
Then some god-sent casual acquaintance, over several pints of dark stout, enthusiastically recommended a quirky little book called “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins.
God bless you, Mr. Robbins. First and foremost, your book was playful. It was joyful. It was irreverent and silly and yet somehow deeply touching. It reintroduced sheer glee into the act of story telling. The prose was wild and dirty and free. As if the marbled weight of western civilization crumbled and slid from my back, I reveled in the reckless abandon of a world infested by smelly gods, magical potions, time travelers and divine bees.
Robbins played. He played on the page in full view of everyone. The years between “Harold the Hermit Crab” and “Jitterbug Perfume” vanished and I remembered what I loved about writing. If he could that, I could do that. And why wasn’t I?
I picked up the gauntlet that Jitterbug Perfume represented. As if my AWOL, besotted muse had returned from a decade long bender and kicked me in the ass, I signed up for a novel writing class at the local community college and started to write that long delayed novel while finally learning about craft, story structure, and how to let ‘er rip. “Fix it in the rewrite’ was the teacher’s refrain. No more perfectly crafted sentences!
I must have read books somewhat similar to Jitterbug Perfume, wild books, crazy books, silly books, but for some reason, Robbins was the one who busted through the shell of my self-conscious, overly serious writer facade. A can of beans and a vibrator as point of view characters?* Why the hell not? Tom’s not everyone’s cup of tea, (authorial intrusion might be his middle name) but he gave me permission to be my true self on the page. And isn’t that all that any of us has to offer? Our unique, adorable, warty, imperfect, struggling, adverb-abusing selves? All the stories have been written, or so they say, but not by us.
So, do you remember a book, story or poem that ignited or re-ignited your writerly fire? I’d love to hear about it.
*(From Skinny Legs and All)