I have had a student for five years and now he almost doesn’t need me, his writing is so good, and so we end up talking about books. He looks to me to recommend books that will put him over the moon. It occurred to me that maybe I would share some of these with you and you can see if they excite you. Ready?
• WOMEN by Charles Bukowski. This poet turned fiction writer’s got a wry, laconic wit and that hardboiled LA down and out genius.
• BUT BEAUTIFUL by Geoffrey Dyer. Short stories about (real life) jazz musicians and the music, sad or exquisite, of their lives.
• THIS IS NOT A NOVEL by David Markson. Everything you ever wanted to know about the lives of artists in one sentence observations. You’ll always have something interesting to bring up at cocktail parties.
• LILAH by Marilynne Robinson. A woman who has had a difficult life learns about trust, only to be achieved through honesty, no matter how unexpected it is.
• HALF BLOOD BLUES by Esi Eduygan . A jazz band caught in Europe in the Second World War and the fate of all the musicians, as narrated by one of the musicians in a sound of its own.
• FABULOUS SMALL JEWS by Joseph Epstein. Older Jews who live middle class lives in Chicago and the disappointments and victories of carrying on. Told with sharp eyed caustic observance.
• COOKING WITH FERNET BRANCA by James Hamilton-Paterson. You’ll be laughing out loud at its tone and timing.
There are of course many more books but all of these listed above are incredibly original in their style, truthfulness and heart. They are the types of books that make you admire writing and books in general. Each of them have their own artistic shape and have nothing imitative about them.
As a writing coach, I cannot teach originality. I can prod for truthfulness and heart, I can excise where an author is boring. But to reach within the human condition and find what is meaningful and will change the reader, what will make the reader look at his or her own life more clearly, that is what art is for.
As an author myself, it is a hard bar to achieve. Frustrating, but the only reason to write (for me.) It requires listening to my inner ear, trusting risks I take, not caring what the madding crowd thinks, and pushing myself to write a book that would make me shocked and inspired as I read it. Not shocked in the prurient sense of the word, but shocked in the sense that I would sit up and think, “Oh my God that is clear vision. I am a better person for this book.” I included wits in my list of writers because wit is always based on truth, truth that frees the joy in oneself.
Now that is a bar of achievement for all of us writers to strive for.