It’s a common belief that if you want to write, you will read–a lot. It follows that if you spend time reading the finest writing, you should be inspired to write even better. I guess that I believe that. Only, sometimes I’m not sure it works that way.
The truth is that when I read something breathtakingly, beautifully written, while it certainly reaffirms my love of the language and my belief in the power of well chosen words to capture and communicate truth and emotion, sometimes these powerful examples make me feel somehow less capable, more fearful, of writing.
You’d think I would avoid that feeling, but I go back to those books, those paragraphs, and phrases that evoke such strong admiration and envy again and again.
I’ve included some of these experiences here. While these seem beautiful, or powerful, or just plain brilliant to me, I’m sure every individual reader has his/her own favorite authors and passages. I’d love to hear yours.
Sometimes a passage will redefine a word or idea for me. This happened for me in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. As Bishop Latour describes his understanding of miracles, I recognized what I inherently believed, but hadn’t realized. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me not to rest so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
Sometimes just a word or two expresses a truth so sublime that it enlarges my world and my understanding of myself. In Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp, In a dream, Davita’s aunt tells her to have “sacred discontent.” She says, “be discontented, but be respectful.” Before reading this I’d never been able to define how to to be dissatisfied with who and what I am, to push and strive for more, while at the same time affirming who I am now, appreciating the growth that I’ve already experienced, and feeling good about myself. I believed it should be possible, but Potok found the words for it.
Even something as simple as a well turned transition delights me. Laura London has such a transition in The Windflower. “August passed like a dancer, graceful and sweating.” Eight expressive words and the authors smoothly moved through a whole month and on with their story.
Right now in my writing, I’m fighting through what many might term a “block.” This is frustrating enough, and then, I read this passage of Patricia McKillip’s in The Bards of Bone Plain about Phelan, who is trying to write his dissertation:
“He sat at a table in the school library later, thinking idly of the encounter, then of Jonah, and then ruthlessly clearing his head to think of nothing at all. He gazed intensely at a sheet of paper, breath suspended, a word on the quivering point of his pen poised and waiting to fall. Monoliths of books and manuscripts rose around him. All were crammed with words, words packed as solidly as bricks in a wall, armies of them marching endlessly on from one page to the next without pause. He forced the pen in his tight grip a hairsbreadth closer to the paper so that the word stubbornly clinging to it might yield finally, flow onto the vast emptiness. Point and paper met. Kissed. Froze.
He sat back, breath spilling abruptly out of him, the pen laden with unformed words dangling now over the floor in his lax fingers. How, how wondered incredulously, did all those books and papers come into existence? In what faceted jewel of amber secreted in what invisible compartment of what hidden casket did others find that one word to begin the sentence that layered itself into a paragraph, that built itself into a page., that went on to the next page, and on, and on?”
Patricia Mckillip might as well have climbed into my head and captured my experience, my feelings, my fear and frustration. I am stunned, and admiring, and, frankly, I am paralyzed.Sometimes, when I read something so expressive and insightful that it steals my breath, I feel like the author has seen into my heart and mind and expressed my wordless truth. This expression becomes more than words. It is beauty. It is revelation. It is magic. And I rejoice, and I yearn. I am humbled, but, eventually, I am still inspired to continue to try.
What are some of your favorite authors/passages?