Books that changed my life (so far)

I’ve been participating in a Lighthouse Writers Workshop for the past couple of months. The workshop instructor was Erika Krouse. We met each week in a Boulder coffee house to discuss and share our stories.

I always get so much out of workshops. The variegated feedback I receive on my own stories is invaluable, but so is reading and offering feedback to other writers. I learned so much from everyone in this workshop. And most important, the weekly meetings helped keep me thinking about and actively engaged with writing.

As a closing activity, Erika asked us to send her a list of five to ten books that have changed our lives. Below is the list I shared.

I would have included The Art of Happiness and The Words of Gandhi, because these books profoundly changed my life. I could have included Hop on Pop and Frog and Toad, because these books introduced me to the joy of reading stories.

But rather than spiritual texts and sentimental favorites, this is a list of books I continually return to for literary technique. Even if I don’t reread these ten books every time I sit down to write, I recall them in my mind like dropping a bucket down a well.

I might add several titles by Sam Delany to this list. But his books are relatively recent reads for me, and its difficult to gauge to what extent these books will change my life, even though I’m pretty sure they have already started.

So, a short list from my canon in chronological order:

  1. The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard (13yo)

    Howard was a master storyteller, and his physical descriptions are superb. But what most intrigued me was the juxtaposition between Howard’s suicide and the indomitable spirit of his characters.

  2. A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (15yo)

    Walter Mosley says every novelist should read poetry to learn how language works. The first poet I seriously studied was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When I dropped out of high school, Ferlinghetti became my lens into literature, connecting me to other poets from Herrick to Whitman to Eliot to Baraka.

  3. The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker (17yo)

    In this sequel to The Color Purple, Walker crafts a story of characters whose lives weave cultural meaning out of individual experience. Reading Walker also led me to the stories of Henry Dumas, another master of personal mythology.

  4. Do The Right Thing (Screenplay and Commentary) by Spike Lee and Lisa Jones (19yo)

    The movie was great, but finding this book was like getting a peak at how the engine works. The book includes the screenplay, story boards, and Lee’s notes on story structure.

  5. House of Incest by Anais Nin (20yo)

    Nin taught me to take my writing seriously even before I was published. Her journals are probably the best writing of her generation, but she chose to withhold them from publication until most of the people in them were dead.

  6. Way Past Cool by Jess Mowry (20yo)

    This book showed me that it is possible to write about street life with compassion. Pimps and drug dealers didn’t have to be condemned or exalted but could be written as human beings with all their glory and shame.

  7. Dubliners by James Joyce (27yo)

    I’ve heard that on his deathbed Joyce expressed regret at not pursuing the storytelling he’d begun in this collection. The Dead is arguably the greatest short story ever written in English. Even now I can’t read the end with dry eyes or without a lump in my throat.

  8. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (27yo)

    Another book that made me cry, twice. Dostoyevsky creates rich characters and brings them together in dramatic scenes that explode with emotion. Also, the preface described Dostoyevsky’s inspiration for the book coming from a famous painting, which led me to look for inspiration in paintings as well, such as Aya Takano‘s superflat style.

  9. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (27yo)

    This episodic novel expanded my idea of what a book could express. Erdrich is able to create vivid characters with individual stories while rendering the experience of a whole community.

  10. Outrageous One Act Plays by Miguel Pinero (30yo)

    Like Jess Mowry, Pinero wrote about street life with honest compassion. No one is innocent, but everyone is capable of goodness.

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