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Borrowing from the Best

October 7, 2012

Recently, I gave my first author talk to kind souls who braved a rainy, blustery night to come out and listen to an unknown. I don’t know if they got anything out of it (I certainly hope so), but I did. I felt like a real author. I also felt relieved that it felt good, and surprisingly easy, to talk about my writing…probably a combination of the friendly atmosphere and because it’s my passion. The fact that I’d rehearsed it a kajillion times and brought notes didn’t hurt, either.

One thing people seemed to like was my display of a stack of books I’d loved as a child. Whenever I am asked how I got started as a writer, I say, as a reader. I wanted to read anything about animals, Charlotte’s Web by the brilliant E. B. White being an all-time favorite. I treasured the bi-weekly trips to the public library and soon narrowed my focus to books about horses. My mother would slip in biographies about Helen Keller and Amelia Earhart, but my heart belonged to Ken McLaughlin in My Friend Flicka, Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, Elisa Bialk’s Tizz the Pony and C. W. Anderson’s Billy and Blaze)…pretty much any book with anything remotely equine on the front cover was devoured and revered. Not surprisingly, the first stories I wrote were about horses. I even went so far as to take the idea (a/k/a basically copy) the plot and characters of My Friend Flicka. I didn’t know the term for it until grad school, but I was employing intertextuality: the idea that whatever we read becomes part of us, can be consciously or subconsciously “borrowed” and even incorporated into our writing.

This story, entitled Outlaw, the Horse That Ran Away (see – I was original with that, at least), was my first “major” piece, written when I was nine. My favorite elementary school teacher, Mrs. Kleine, would have me stay in at recess so she could edit it with me. (Looking back, I am immensely grateful to her, because after teaching for seventeen years, I F U L L Y appreciate how precious time a teacher’s time is without the children.) My father, who was Dean of the College of Education, wanted to feature a young writer and picked me (imagine) to appear on a bulletin board in the education building. One of the art professors drew three beautiful illustrations, and my Outlaw story was “published.” This was the first time I remember feeling like a real writer.

I did branch out with my reading, enjoying Beverly Cleary’s books and delighting in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I even went so far as to keep my own little black notebook where I would spy on people, jotting down Harriet-like things such as “That little boy looks sad…I wonder why” or “That woman in the checkout line is fat…I wonder why.” I would usually add, Think about this, just like Harriet did. I certainly had fun with my observations, and they also helped me realize the vital importance of looking and listening as a writer.

Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden became close friends, although I didn’t end up writing any mysteries. I remember enjoying How To Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, as well as his very unique, quirky The Portmanteau Book, which prompted me to experiment with humor in my own writing. As I morphed into a teenager, both the books I read and my writing became more angst-y. Forever by Judy Blume dealt with teen sexuality and was the “must-read (but don’t tell)” book of that time. The sex in it was deliciously shocking, and I later incorporated PG-13 romantic scenes in my writing. I would fill up spiral notebooks with stories and surprised myself by killing off a main character. When I reread what I’d written, I cried and was very taken aback that my words could have that effect (even though it was just on me).

Later authors whom I read voraciously were Stephen King (I marveled at how much that man could scare me) and Flannery O’Connor. Their dark tales and dry humor surfaced in my writing pieces in high school and college. I had never known I had “dark” within me and was quite pleased to find that yes, I do.

It would be nearly impossible to list all of the authors I enjoyed during my youth, and I would love to hear from other readers in their mid to late 40’s about their own favorite books. I am so grateful to the wonderful writers I’ve mentioned here. It is with a bit of sadness that I realize they will never know how much they meant to a scrawny, bespectacled, young horse lover on a yellow beanbag chair in her bedroom. I’m hoping to pay it forward by creating enjoyment for readers of my own.

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From → authors, horses, Writing

6 Comments
  1. I am always more inspired after reading; it’s so important to writing.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Wise words!

  2. Ellen permalink

    When I was in grade school I used to get up at 6 am to read Lassie Come Home before school, then I would get on the school bus with a tissue dabbing my eyes from all that doggie drama. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia, The Little House on the Prairie books, and yes, The Hardy Boys, all 58 of them.

    • Ellen, I can’t BELIEVE I forgot about Narnia! Those were definite highlights in my reading history. Also Little House – read them all. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Stephen Ward permalink

    I read all the kiddie stories in the 60’s. My favs were the Alice books (Lewis Carroll). When I was in my teens, I read everything, old and contemporary. I liked Richard Hooker, Kurt Vonnegut, John R. Powers. Another fav was The Wanderers by Richard Powell. It was hip and real. Another thing i liked was Bob Dylan’s lyrics, especially his mid sixties stuff. Terry Southern’s the Magic Christian is another fine one. I like Steinbeck. His stuff really made me think. I like John Toland’s book about Hitler. i like biographies a lot. Anne Rice is really good. Erotic stuff is fun if its grounded in reality. Now everyone’s getting into bondage and combining it with terror and it’s just not my scene.

    • Great additions, Stephen – you mentioned some I hadn’t thought of…of course, I was a mere baby in the mid-sixties :).

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