kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, writers
I have had all kinds of advice about writing, but the one proverb that rang most true was, "Write what you enjoy reading." I passed this on to a young friend today, one who is pondering going on for a PhD, who said, "…but I can't write." I also shared Heinlein's Dictum about short story writing, "Write one every week. After a year, pick at least one to submit for publication. Nobody can write 52 bad stories in a row." That can apply to any kind of writing, but I find it applies particularly to essays. With luck, a PhD dissertation can be composed of the best half dozen out of 52 discourses. It worked for me, anyway.
I test my own material, such as blog posts, by reading for my own enjoyment before hitting the "Publish" button. If I can't say, "I liked that!", I either rewrite or scrap it and start over. But I can tell that my own work is also subject to Sturgeon's Law: "90% of everything is junk." Anyway, if I like it, there's some chance that a few people out there will think enough like me to like it also.
I enjoyed reading Floyd Skloot's third memoir, The Wink of the Zenith. The author suffered a brain-damaging infection twenty-one years ago. His first two memoirs record his struggle to recover some amount of function as he reassembled his shattered memory and personality. He had written quite a bit of poetry and fiction, including three novels. After his illness, he found he needed the flat reality that autobiography provided, to work through his affliction, to have some hope of a return to productive function. This memoir focuses not on his illness, though it is mentioned, but on the experiences that formed him as a writer.
Three things in particular grasped my attention: performance, Faulkner, and home life. Though he loved his mother, if ever a mother deserved hating, it was Floyd's mother: capricious, violent, hateful, and vain, she had little going for her. One wonders how the parents ever got together long enough to produce two boys; by the time the author was old enough to remember, the two were uniformly hostile to one another.
She had had a brief fling at fame as a singer and radio host in the 1930s, and never let anyone forget it. Both before and after her husband's death in Floyd's teenage years, she had to be the center of attention…or else! She was one remarkably self-blind woman. After the death of Floyd's father, she seemed to be in shock for a good part of a year. But thereafter, she embarked on a husband hunt in a relentless way that left little time for her boys (I don't recall now whether the older boy got married and moved out during this time, or earlier; he was about eight years older).
In sporadic efforts to recover a performing career, the mother had coerced her young boys to perform with her at various events. All the family members were good singers. First the older boy, Philip, then Floyd, found the courage to refuse these outings. Sports provided Floyd's outlet, though his small size and slender skills eventually convinced him he'd never be a great player at basketball, football, or even baseball, his favorite.
It was only later in life that he returned to the stage, acting in a few plays. Over a few years, he realized he wouldn't become a leading light as an actor either. However, learning lines, performing on stage and becoming the character taught him a lot about voice, mood, and how to project to an audience. While his home life may have provided some material, or a foundation for his writing, it was the performing from which he learned how to convey it.
In his college years, as he was dithering among this major and that, he was employed as a reader for a blind professor. In those days before Books on Tape, he recorded material for the professor to listen to. This mentor chose selections for Floyd's needs as much as for his own, and one day handed him a copy of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Just reading a few pages of the book makes huge demands on a reader. Imagine reading it aloud with some semblance of meaning!! Between recording this book and producing a large article about Thomas Hardy ("not a good writer, but a great writer"), Floyd learned how these writers could get characters under your skin and make you care about them.
There is more, much more of course, but these influences have been key ones that made Floyd Skloot the writer he was prior to 1988, and have stayed with him as he recovered into the writer he is today.