Posted in Memoir, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing

A writer’s early roots: What we read & what we write

A young Daphne DuMaurier (Source; Wikipedia)
A young Daphne DuMaurier
(Source; Wikipedia)

This morning I had a very odd experience.  I had the privilege of peering in to the mind of a 16-year-old girl – or should I say a 16-year-old writer.  And the most peculiar thing of all is that it was me.

A bit of backstory: when I was in high school (lo these many years ago) I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist – but I also had a very practical side and that practical side won out in the university program selection process.  I had my very best marks in biology, chemistry and analytical trigonometry in my senior year, and you can guess what I studied in university.  And to tell you the truth, that health science degree and the Master of Science have stood me in good stead in my career evolution from health communication, to health & business writer, to creative non-fiction writer, and now into fiction.

But in high school, my English marks weren’t far behind my math and science.  In fact, when given the opportunity in my junior year to complete what was then referred to as a “distinction” project” I didn’t choose to do it in science, rather I chose English.  To be more specific I chose the short story.  This morning I took three magazine boxes off the highest shelf in my office to begin the laborious process of digitalizing all of my publications to rid myself of the glut of paper that threatens to overtake most writers from time to time.  What do you suppose was the first document that I pulled out?  Much to my surprise, it was my Grade 11 “distinction project.”

The framework for the project was aspects of the short story (very apropos since lately I’ve been thinking that I really ought to read some Alice Munro given that she won the Nobel prize for literature recently based on a career writing short stories – and I’ve never read a single sentence she’s written).  The project, painstakingly typed on an old typewriter (with only one or two whited-out typos) was an analysis of the components of the short story.  For each of the traditional components – character, setting, plot etc. – I had written a short story that supposedly showcasing each.  One story’s character took center stage; in the next one setting was the most important part etc.   But it was the themes of each of the stories that told the story of that 15-year-old writer.

The theme that came through again and again, regardless of the actual characters or plot of the story was this: Know who you are, and be true to yourself.

First-edition cover of Rebecca (Source: Wikipedia)
First-edition cover of Rebecca
(Source: Wikipedia)

When I think back through my day-job career, and my writing by moonlight, I think that I have truly tried to do this – but I didn’t realize that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche.  This was kind of a light bulb moment, because I just finished re-reading what I have long considered to be my very favorite novel: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

I first read the book when I was in high school, right around the time that I wrote those short stories.  I had seen the various iterations of the movies based on it in the interim, but it was eye-opening for me to read this book so many decades later to try to see what it was that captivated me and to figure out if the book had, in fact, had any influence on my writing.

This time around, I found myself impatient with the narrator.  A twenty-something woman of the 1930’s, the unnamed protagonist met and married a much older, and much more worldly man who took her back to England to his estate, Manderley.  Haunted by the ghost of his first wife, the young woman concocts in her mind all manner of scenarios, most of which have absolutely no basis in reality – indeed, the reality is much more sinister.  I kept wanting her to get over it, to move on, to ask the question to clear up the uncertainties.  I don’t remember being so impatient with her at the time.  So, I do think I’ve evolved as a woman.  But what about as a writer?

Grace Note Cover PaperbackWritten in 1938, Rebecca was not an historical novel, the genre I found myself drawn to both as a reader and as a writer in the last few decades.  However, I read it near the beginning of the 1970’s, so for me, as a young woman, it was historical indeed, and I remember always thinking about it that way.  Daphne DuMaurier did not need to create the world of the 1930’s: she lived in it.  But for me, the detail was now of historical significance, and I do believe that this influenced my choice of genres.

I enjoyed the book the second time around and hope that some of my own work will stand the test of time as did this ne.  Perhaps in the future some young woman will pick up Grace Note and think about the strength of the Lysanor, the heroine, and recognize that she, too, spent her life trying to be true to herself.

Posted in Ideas generation, Reading

The things that shape us: Books & their stories

Green Darkness: The original cover from 1972. I remember it well.

From time to time I wonder if what I read as a child and young adult has had any impact on what I write today – or on what I like to read.  It would make sense that it would, since what we read and experience do influence us in many other ways (our beliefs, attitudes etc.).  It’s in my mind right now because I’m currently re-reading a book that was one of my favorites back in the early 1970’s and has stayed in my mind for many years (it has also made me wonder if books I loved years ago would feel the same to me now.)

The book is Anya Seton’s classic historical novel Green Darkness.  I remember the feeling of the book more clearly than the content of the story.  I remember being swept up in it as the characters move from the 20th century to the 16th and back.  It’s a bit of a romance I guess, but it’s the historical detail and the characters that paint the picture for me.  As I read it now, with the benefit of maturity (I guess), I’m struck by the writing this time around.  Seton is a classic historical novelist who died in 1990 but not before writing more than a dozen books, many of which were bestsellers, and several of which were subsequently made into movies.  But, back to my original musing: has this book that I first read thirty years ago influenced my writing?

I think it probably has – but it’s difficult to say which came first – the reading or the influence.  Why did I choose the book in the first place?  I think my sister recommended it, but if I were not interested in historical fiction I would likely have ignored her – God knows I have ignored other recommendations she has made over the years!

So, there must have been something that compelled me to read and enjoy historical fiction at that time – long before I ever considered writing it.  Somehow, though, that love of reading historical fiction has manifested itself in my love of research and writing in this area, and not because I studied history in university.  I did not.  So if Anya Seton’s work (after Green Darkness I read several others all of which I enjoyed), influenced me, what other kinds of books influenced me?  Or at least, what are the most memorable books I read over the years?

At the top of the list – more of a favorite than Green Darkness – is Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.  If asked to identify my favorite all-time book, this is it.  It is, of course, now a classic (originally published in 1938) and it has been made into a move more than once.

Eighth Moon: Today's cover with its sub-title.

I also remember a book called Eighth Moon by Sansan as told to Betty Bao Lord which I notice now has a sub-title (I’m certain it did not when I read it – I wonder if we need sub-titles these days to select books).  The modern sub-title is The True Story of a Young Girl’s Life in Communist China and it takes me back a very long time.

I know that I read a lot of books back then, but this is the only one I remember.  I can remember particular aspects of the book, like when she had to work in fields where human feces were used as fertilizer, and that’s going back a very long time in my life.  I read it in junior high school.

Eight Moon: The original cover -- the one I can actually remember!

I can only imagine how I found the story so divergent from my own life experience with this young woman who was about my age at the time of the story.

I can’t really articulate what it is about the book that it is the only one I remember from that point in my life, but I’m sure that remembering is reason enough to think it has influence.

What books influenced your work?