Amy Sterling Casil recently pointed the “give us the top 10 books that influenced you” finger at me. I’m really glad she did, because until then I had seen the meme running around but hadn’t really thought about it in any great detail, and when you really take a minute to think about it the question “who are your top 10 influences” is interesting. The word “influence” means something different from “favorite,” after all. There is probably an overlap, of course, but they are two very, very different things.
So, in my overly analytical fashion, I thought about it.
The first thing I had to do was to define “influence.” Just what is it that these books are meant to be influencing? How I think? How I look at the world? What is it?
In the end, I used the lens of my writing as the primary context to answer the question through–mostly because that’s what I was interested in, and partially because I assume that was the context the question intended. This meant that in order to qualify for the list, the book had to have either made me want to write in some fashion or another, or had to have reached out and changed something about the way I look at the craft or the “art” of things that I actually produce. And finally, I decided I wanted to limit the list only to things that in my heart of hearts I could tangibly quantify. In other words, it had to be something I could point to and say more than “Dude! That book totally rocks!”
With this definition in mind, I started to list works. This was really quite hard. I mean … it’s easy to list things I love, but to outline a list of things that have a definable connection with my writing is really quite difficult.
I had to go past some books that I absolutely love–including golden age faves done by Heinlein and Clarke and Pohl and Silverberg, and even Bradbury. I had to pass up work that were absolute favorites. I had to pass up some that totally blew my mind when I first came to them because I couldn’t point at anything in their pages and quantify how they made me want to write or changed my work in some direct way. I skipped past Robert Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment, which I love, and Mike Resnick’s whole Kirinyaga series, which I think is just exquisite. I chose neither Card’s Ender’s Game nor LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I bypassed Tolkien, and Kris Rusch, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which is just so way cool. I left Tim Powers by the wayside. And I ignored all the cyberpunk players that made my head spin. I could go on.
But I thought about it all night, and came up with a total of eight. Only eight.
I needed two more.
So I set it aside and came back to it tonight, whereupon I settled on my last two.
What did I learn? Well, lots. First, my list of ten are not all works of fiction. I wouldn’t have considered that idea before. And second, not all of the works are stand-alone books. Perhaps this breaks the rules, but hey, that’s freaking life. It’s my damned list.
I then tried to rank them 1-10. Admittedly, the best I got was grouping them into three gatherings of roughly equal weights. But I’ve decided I’ll release them one or two at a time, starting tonight with what I’ll call…
#10 – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
During a recent conversation, a friend of mine asked why I recommended she read Anne Lamott’s work. She had come across other people who recommended Lamott as a spiritual writer, and I think my mention of her created a bit of a dissonance. I’m not the most religious of people (perhaps I’m reading a bit too much into her question, though, who knows?), and much of Lamott’s spiritual nature comes through her writing in the form of discussions that have their foundations in her Christian faith. I said something along the lines of the fact that I appreciate her for her ability to open herself up and write directly from the heart, and for her sense of humanity. She is not afraid to say what’s on her mind, no matter how it might leave someone to think of her. I don’t see her as a Christian writer, but as a writer who happens to be Christian.
I like her ability to examine her efforts to rise above her gritty dark side. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me she hits the right notes.
For the counter-example, however, I once suggested my mom read Operating Instructions, which is a bit of a raw, honest, and therefore sometimes cynical look at child rearing. In retrospect, my recommendation was probably misplaced. You see, I think my mom truly loved her “job” as a full-time mother. I think she found a particular (and justified) honor in that role, and I don’t think Lamott’s open-gut style was to her taste.
But this is not about my mother, nor is it about Operating Instructions. This is about Bird by Bird.
At its root, BbB is a “how to” book that dispenses advice to people who want to learn how to write. In that vein, the advice is all pretty good. Shitty Drafts; Perfectionism; School Lunches. All the specific advice is important. It’s all good. But I’ve read a gazillion “how-to” books. They all say similar things. So, what sets BbB apart? What makes me say that BbB was an influence?
I select it as a major influence because reading it makes my fingers need a keyboard. It makes me see what the pure act of writing is about, regardless of whether or not the result is very good on any given day. At its apex, writing is art, and art is what lets your insides be what your insides are born to be. Every page of the book beats with the heart and soul of what that means to Anne Lamott, and in the process of reading it, a little bit of that magic never fails to rub off on me.