I was amused to see that Bob Greenberger, who suggested this month’s Crazy 8 blog topic “What one piece of writing inspires us?” and wrote the first blog entry based on it, violated the premise right off the bat. Being asked to single out a favorite book or piece of writing is, as he so correctly observed, like being asked to choose a favorite child or family member. Besides, there’s so many ways to be inspired: by a well-constructed story or beautifully realized characters or the elegance (or sparsity) of prose or the reality of the dialog. Bob failed to come up with a single piece that answered the question, deferring instead to the simple truth that inspiration came from different places depending on the mood and the need.
However, in the spirit of the challenge, I did attempt to pick just one piece from a list of favorite writing. I started with what is, in my opinion, the greatest novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a beautifully written, stunning achievement of story telling that I reread at least every couple of years. Despite its dated and deeply ingrained Jazz Age flavor, it remains a gripping tale of one man’s need to reinvent himself in pursuit of an American Dream–not necessarily the American Dream, just the one that Jay Gatsby had imagined for himself. That his dream is, in reality, a vapid and ordinary bit of fluff like Daisy Buchannan is what makes his efforts and his fate so heartbreaking.
But that just lead me to another favorite novel of self-reinvention, Jack London’s autobiographical Martin Eden (1909), the tale of a San Francisco waterfront tough who by the sheer power of ideology and muscular intellect shapes himself into a man of letters and renown who, despite achieving everything he’s sought, is unable to live in a world that can’t also be reshaped to fit his proletariat beliefs. But then, I also love his Sea Wolf (1904), which is less a rousing seafaring adventure than it is a psychological thriller that pits brain against brawn. And then there’s London’s John Barleycorn (1913), another autobiographical novel, this one dealing with the author’s love of and struggles with alcohol.
Of course, it’s impossible for me to think of John Barleycorn without comparing it another great American work on the subject, Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life (1994), another tough guy writer who dealt head on with his demons and addiction to drinking, this one in the form of a memoir that, if you haven’t read, you owe yourself an apology and the immediate purchase thereof. And how can I talk about Hamill without recommending his lyrical allegorical novel Snow in August (1997) and the fantastical Forever (2003), about a man who draws life from the hero of most of this author’s writing, New York City.
Oh, and speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, I didn’t mention his wonderful and heartbreakingly funny Pat Hobby stories, a series of short stories about a down on his heels Hollywood screenwriting hack, written near the end of the author’s life. And, while I’m on the subject of humor, there’s no way I can ignore the surrealist offerings of TV writer Jack Douglas, whose collections of short pieces, My Brother Was An Only Child (1959) and Never Trust A Naked Bus Driver (1960), both first read when I was eleven or twelve years old in the mid-1960s were, besides Mad Magazine, Jerry Lewis, and my father, the biggest influence on my thoroughly warped sense of humor. Not so funny (although it has its moments), but written by another 1950s television writer, is Helene Hanff’s epistolary masterpiece, 84 Charing Cross Road (1970), following her twenty year correspondence with London-based bookseller Frank Doel, a clerk at Marks & Co. located at the aforementioned address, which says more about the love and respect of friendships to me than anything since Huckleberry Finn.
I could keep going, on and on (and on and on and on), from longtime favorites acquired in my childhood like Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Sidney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” series, and Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine” stories, to my two candidates for best science fiction novels of all time, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1953), to the great detective and noir writers, including Rex Stout, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block, and Elmore Leonard, to name just a few, to novels by the likes of Gore Vidal, Frederick Exley, Kurt Vonnegut, William Goldman, Joseph Heller, Graham Greene, and absolutely anything by Phillip Roth…anyone who has ever made me stop dead in the middle of reading what they’ve written to soak in some line or idea. (The latest instance of that happening was while rereading Greene’s Our Man In Havana (1958) with the line, “Time gives poetry to a battlefield.” I mean…wow!)
And I’ve hardly even touched on short stories–J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948); “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw (1939); Ernest Heminway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936)–and non-fiction, especially biographies of writers, or the great comic book writers…but don’t get me started! I could literally write a book on the books and stories that have had an impact on me and my writing. And, lately, I’ve been reading a lot of plays and screenplays by everyone from Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams to Paddy Chayefsky and Aaron Sorkin, looking for inspiration in the craft of writing dialog.
The point (at long last!) is, there’s some inspiration to be found in everything you read. If you’re lucky, it’s positive inspiration that leads you to take a chance on a new way of expressing an old idea or to up your game and reach for the level of prose and quality of writing you’ve just experienced. At the very least, even bad writing can be inspiring, if only as inspiration to avoid duplicating its badness.
But one piece of writing that’s inspired me? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.