…books in formation: 6 to 10

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6. Winter Journal, by Paul Auster

Auster writes his journal in the second person.  He is the you of his own story, but the reader is also the you of his experience, living with him and inside his mind.  And so my own you is born, a you who is both me and not me, who has permission to access my thoughts and my life and lay them out on the page.  You are brave and honest and sometimes reckless, while I hide away, trying not to be noticed.

7. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

O’Brien understands the human impulse to tell stories, describing the need for soldiers in the Vietnam War to let the words spill out, shaping and reshaping their reality until it became a tolerable truth.  He says that stories are for ‘joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.

You feel Ray Bradbury’s advice when you read this, that O’Brien is your ‘someone higher, wiser, older’ who says you are not crazy, that it is all right… hell… fine, to tell your stories.  And as time is forever moving forwards, you will forever be discovering how you got from where you were to where you are.

8. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

You read this alongside Working Days, Steinbeck’s diary account of writing the novel at his house in Los Gatos, California, while building work was being carried out nearby, noise and kerfuffle and self-doubt constantly disrupting his flow.  You think of this whenever you feel yourself making excuses for not writing… too noisy, too quiet, not good enough, not time enough, too much coffee, too honest, too difficult….

You also remind yourself that he lived for a while in Bruton, Somerset, a mere eleven miles away from where you live now.  Sometime in the future you will visit his desk that resides in the museum there, and you will stand in the room with the ghost of his brilliance.

 9. Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

At some point you feel the need to find the slippery edge of your creativity, to understand how it can sometimes be elusively uninterested and sometimes surging in its urgency.  You want to understand why you dread the page, held back by the dead weight deep in your stomach, but then when you find your way creepingly into the story you are lost, suspended elsewhere, and then afterwards, you feel weightless and free, unfettered by the things that troubled you before you began writing. 

You find many practical answers to your questions in this book, learning about the functions of the frontal cortex, the hippocampus and the basal ganglia, so you can fool yourself into thinking the vagaries are now a navigable journey. In truth, you know the answers are beyond you, beyond language and biology, beyond anything earthly, and really all you need to do is to pay attention, pay your respects to this unknowable universal force, and write.

10.  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

In Angelou’s first memoir, she said ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’  She told her story with clear-eyed honesty, and you felt the complicated shame of keeping your own secrets in comparison to the simplicity of telling the truth.  You find that once you begin telling the truth, it is very difficult to stop.

Of course you are human, so you still have your secrets, but you try to tip the balance towards honesty, and somewhere along the way you discover that writing is a way to find the truth when it has been mired in mystery and muddled perception.  If you can achieve a fraction of the elegance and grace that Angelou showed through laying words onto the page, it will be worth the knotted pain of cracking open a difficult truth.  And somewhere there, perhaps enlightenment comes. 

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