I while ago, I heard somebody talk about how they utilize other writers as “mentors” by reading their works. I like this concept. Finding a writer whose style I like and picking their work apart to find out why I like it. Moreover, when I find a writer who writes for the same reason I do, I can’t help but be drawn to their work.
This was very much the case when I was listening to the audiobook for Joan Didion’s “Let Me Tell You What I Mean.” The book is a collection of essays. Specifically, her essay “Why I Write” from 1976 hit me hard. (If you want to read it, the New York Times has it in it’s archive here).
There are so many nuggets in this essay that spoke to me as a writer. So many things that I see in myself. For example:
“During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.
In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral.”
Later in the essay she says again:
“During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.”
These particular passages stand out to me because in my late high school composition/literature classes and later during my English Rhetoric degree curriculum, I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to be there. I felt like I wanted to be writing about people and magic and other worlds. But, that I should be writing some beautiful novel that others would pick apart with theories and grand metaphors that my peers would praise as belonging with the greats.
My short story attempts didn’t look at the complexities of relationships, but how an errand run for dog food could end up with a young woman saving a bunny from being bought by a parent simply trying to please a inconsolable child in a pet store. I wasn’t seeking to write a story about how those people interacted, but about a bunny…being saved…and a woman loving animals. I wasn’t actually thinking about those other interactions, not like my peers or my professors. I was thinking about the bunny.
Another issue during my education was grammar. Grammar is fascinating, but also the bane of my existence. Didion says:
“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”
My grandma used to say something similar, that she was “out of school” when they taught various things she didn’t remember. Fractions were the big one for her. Commas and the proper names for various verb tenses must be mine. Present progressive? Never heard of her.
The final thing that I am so drawn to in this article is the way Didion describes stories coming to her as photographs or pictures. I usually have photos, strange slow moving scenes, or even full movie-like dramatic sequences playing out in my mind when I get an idea for some type of narrative. But always, those pictures came with questions I needed answered. If the questions are loud enough, the plea for the answer loud enough, I end up getting obsessed with the writing of it.
“Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.” (Didion, 1976)
Who are some of your writing mentors you’ve found while reading? Who inspires you to keep going?