By Kim Triedman
Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, one novel inadvertently begat another.
I’d been reading in bed – the first few pages of Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” – and I fell asleep to her extraordinary opening incantation: “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.” It stopped me cold. To this day there are few first lines in literature that I’ve found more breathtaking — more darkly alluring. When I woke several hours later in the middle of the night, the music of that voice still echoed in my head, and I followed it up the steep stairway to my attic office. There, wrapped in a Hudson Bay blanket, in the light of my computer, I tapped out the first few pages of what was to become my debut novel.
These many years later, the similarities between my novel and Kingsolver’s are slight. Both are written from multiple perspectives and share what one might call a strong sense of voice. Both are rather interior, highly sensual, and reveal a deep love of language. Beyond that there is virtually nothing to connect the themes, subject matter, characters or settings of the two novels, and it would not occur to anyone reading one that that initial spark of life came out of an experience reading the other.
But so it was.
In fact to this day I wonder at how a single opening passage could possibly have given rise to a novel I had neither the training nor intention to write. Even two months later, with pages accumulating like snowdrifts around my tiny office, I still had no notion of what exactly I was doing. I was a medical writer. I was raising three kids. I’d never taken a creative writing class in my life. But there it was, the result of a reading experience so extraordinary — so ineffable — I can scarcely describe even now what exactly it was.
The same thing happened with my poetry, which I started writing in my 40s. There was no forethought; I simply found myself one evening penning a poem – something I hadn’t attempted since junior high, when a particularly annoying English teacher had forced the issue. Once again the writing was triggered by reading (the culprit this time the fabulous short-story writer William Trevor), and the poem I wrote just happened to carry the lilt and brio of a master Irish raconteur . I remember the accent in my head. I even remember ending one sentence with the word ‘so’ – an Irish convention to which I had no ethnic or linguistic claim whatsoever!
This time around, however, I followed up my early efforts with an actual class. The one I chose required that we read one full collection and write one original poem a week. We were thus exposed to a broad range of poetic voices over the semester while also producing our own work. What I observed was that after reading a volume of poetry, I often came to my own work with something new – a rhythm, a tone, some pattern of usage – that hadn’t been part of my writing vocabulary before. Without even realizing it, through some subliminal process of absorption, my words began moving to a new kind of music. And each week, with each new poet I encountered, they were trying out a different dance. It was not conscious imitation; it was like a new way of hearing — of receiving other voices or harmonies and letting them filter down through my own process. Though most of those early poems weren’t altogether successful, each one represented a critical experiment in expression, allowing me to broaden and refine my own distinct poetic repertoire.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, this artistic give-and-take. As writers, we read and are enriched, see possibilities for language – syntax and rhythm, repetition and rhyme and enjambment – where before there were none. At times it is quite conscious: our attention is drawn to a specific mannerism or idiosyncrasy, and – recognizing it as such – we find ourselves playing with it in our own work. More often, though, the transfer is subterranean: our work is expanded by the simple fact of our exposures, much the way a child’s vocabulary grows simply as a function of reading. The more we hear new things and see them in context, the more they become part of our own subconscious toolkits. It is at least some small part of what binds us together as writers: the ability to find beauty and novelty in other voices and to pass along something unique in our own.
Even still, when I need to jump-start my writing, my first and best impulse is always to lie down with some Louise Glück or Nick Flynn or Kevin Prufer (if it’s poetry I’m after) or Colm Tóibín or Michael Ondaatje or, yes, Barbara Kingsolver (if it’s fiction). To bring their own unique music into my head and let it work its subtle magic. To top me off – brim-full – so I can spill over onto my very own page.