My library shelves are bulging with books, some of which are specifically on writing, and others that simply inspire me. I often think I should weed some of them out — get rid of those I seldom refer to. Then I remember that one of these had some words of wisdom in chapter 2, another in the introduction, stlll another in a sidebar. I sigh and decide to keep them all — just in case.
But there are a few that I use consistently, turning the pages and underlining until the paper threatens to give way. Let’s start with The Bible. I admit to pulling verses out of context, but that’s the way they speak to me. Suddenly, and with power, a phrase seems to leap off the page and touch my heart. Here are a few favorites:
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43: 19-10)
“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their stength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40: 31)
What wondrous words to lift writers up and give them the vision to keep going!
Another book I keep close at hand is Caesar Johnson’s collection of quotations called To See a World in a Grain of Sand. I have often stood on a beach and sifted grains of sand through my fingers, remembering those beautiful words of William Blake: To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower: hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.
In his little book, Matthew Arnold reminds me that Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming. And when I’m having trouble writing a scene, Epictetus tells me that It is difficulties that show what men are. At the end of a long working day, I take comfort in Victor Hugo’s words: go to sleep in peace. God is awake.
Eudora Welty was one of America’s finest short story writers. In her lifetime, she received almost every honor given to writers, including the Pulitzer! She wrote a little book called, quite simply, On Writing. It is only 106 pages long, but it is packed full of wisdom. This was originally part of a larger work called The Eye of the Story, but is now considered an important handbook in its own right.
Whenever I need to find support for my own belief in the power of setting — of place — in fiction, I turn to Chapter Three and read “Fiction depends for its life on place . . .” and I am vindicated. Eudora and I are kindred spirits! She laughingly tells the story of how the great literary critic Herschel Brickell told her she had misplaced the moon in a story. She claims it wasn’t until that moment that she realized it rose in the east, not in the west. It was a great lesson in the importance of getting the details of setting right.
In our next session, I’ll tell you about some more books, but for now I’ll just say: Don’t throw away any of your books on writing — you might find a hidden gem in one of them. And, by all means, always put the moon in the right place in the sky!
Submitted by Marilyn Donahue