I’ve really enjoyed writing in this blog these last few months. I thought for this week I’d share some of the authors that have inspired me over the years, and whose writing styles I find myself emulating, or sometimes try to emulate. This blog has been a fun place to experiment, to find and refine my voice as a writer, and to write on my own terms, outside of class or work assignments. And now for a little over-the-shoulder nod to the authors who influence me; with a little homage paid, I’m hoping they top up my cup with their ambrosia – fuel for future writing.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I remember when I got my first pack of Magic: The Gathering cards back in middle school, one of my favorite cards was Scathe Zombies. The card wasn’t powerful and the art wasn’t all that cool, but the flavor text was both. “They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose, / Nor spake, nor moved their eyes; / It had been strange, even in a dream,/ To have seen those dead men rise.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I love that “eyes/rise” rhyme. I repeated it so many times to myself, I still know it by heart. I went to the library and found and read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, because I felt connected to it through this card. I’m a little bummed that these days Magic focuses more on the characters and worlds the publishers have created, and they hardly ever include excerpts from literature anymore. It meant a lot to me as a kid.
“Kuala Khan” is another poem I encountered when I was young. I remember watching a film in which the protagonist shares the poem from memory with her romantic interest; they are passengers on a boat, below-decks, and his head is in her lap, and her voice is soft and tender and the poem is so mysterious. The moment is incredibly intimate. I still remember that moment but I have no idea what film it was (anyone know it?).
Coleridge describes the Kubla Khan‘s genesis as the scribbled fragment of an opium-induced dream he half-remembered, but then was interrupted right before “a damsel with a dulcimer”, and thus the last stanza has a saner, more sober voice.
Here’s the poem below, plus Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition (tone very different than the tender reading I remember).
“Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Or, a vision in a dream. A fragment.
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
I encountered Douglas Coupland in late high school / early college. At the time I was taking programming classes, and tried majoring in CompSci my freshman year (debugging quickly disabused me of that notion).
Coupland’s Microserfs is a novel about the late 90s tech startup culture that is full to bursting with intelligence, pop culture references, and a snappy wit. Reading Coupland feels like this: you and your friends are immersed in a reality in which you have an infinite amount of time to describe feelings or features of the world, and you’re able to ping-pong these incredibly articulate sentences back and forth to each other.
“Do you remember that old TV series, Get Smart? Do you remember at the beginning where Maxwell Smart is walking down the secret corridor and there are all of those doors that open sideways, and upside down and gateways and stuff? I think that everyone keeps a whole bunch of doors just like this between themselves and the world. But when you’re in love, all of your doors are open, and all of their doors are open. And you roller-skate down your halls together.”
― Douglas Coupland,
“Give parents the tiniest of confidences and they’ll use them as crowbars to jimmy you open and rearrange your life with no perspective. Sometimes I’d just like to mace them. I want to tell them that I envy their upbringings that were so clean, so free of futurelessness. And I want to throttle them for blindly handing over the world to us like so much skid-marked underwear.”
― Douglas Coupland,
“Trevor realized that the odd thing about English is that no matter how much you screw sequences word up up, you understood, still, like Yoda, will be. Other languages don’t work that way. French? Dieu! Misplace a single le or la and an idea vaporizes into a sonic puff. English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge.” ― Douglas Coupland, Generation A
David Foster Wallace
I’d heard so much about Infinite Jest, mostly that it was a tome of a novel at over a thousand pages, and that it meandered for all those pages and ended up really nowhere. I downloaded it on my Kindle and danced right through it; I’m not saying it didn’t take me ages, but it was by no means a slog. If you’re detecting a pattern amongst these authors, you’ve realized that plot is at the bottom of my list of importance. Followed maybe by setting, then characters, and at the top is simply: I like the way certain authors fit words together. Wallace wrote a short story about the topography of rural mid-Western tennis courts, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (not kidding – “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”, in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again).
From what I’ve heard, people either adore or loathe Infinite Jest, DFW’s opus, there is no middle ground. Indeed, I’ve read excerpts to friends and I get those two reactions. And probably you, the blog reader, are either very much enjoying these quotes, or maybe just scrolling and skimming right through. Either way, here’s a couple. The first is from a commencement address that a friend of mine actually witnessed. Wish he’d have come to Wheaton! The whole speech is worth watching, up there with that “Sunscreen” speech that floated around the internet a few years ago. Of course I’m biased: Wallace’s is much better.
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
– David Foster Wallace, This is Water, commencement speech at Kenyon College 2005
Here’s one from Infinite Jest, which is at its heart a novel about addiction and inner mental life. I have never read an author who more accurately captures first-person consciousness.
― David Foster Wallace,
On and off during the late 2000s I read through the entire Tom Robbins catalogue. I find his writing similar to DFW. Instead of describing a planet, Robbins peppers you with a description of every moon that orbits it, every satellite, the geography of stars around its periphery, the dangers of staring into the eclipse of its sun, and maybe highlights of its natural history, and lets your mind imagine its color and shape. Also – Robbins has a primitivist, anarchic streak that is invigorating, though given the years he was most active (70s, 80s) his antagonists tend to be institutions like Catholicism and government rather than today’s more-deserving modern villains (corporate power, dehumanizing technology etc).
“And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the sound. And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the raven. Ancient Shamans, rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran into the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating. And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure.”
-Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
“When we’re incomplete, we’re always searching for somebody to complete us. When, after a few years or a few months of a relationship, we find that we’re still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more promising. This can go on and on–series polygamy–until we admit that while a partner can add sweet dimensions to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfillment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter.”
― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
I am an adventurer here in Asia, and nothing gets the adventurer-blood boiling like reading a little Kerouac. Good friends and I have bonded over Kerouac more than any other author. Deeply deeply flawed though he was, there is a holiness and purity to Kerouac’s enthusiasm for life and travel, and his head-over-heels embrace of certain aspects of Buddhist philosophy, often through the scholar’s lens of his friendship with Allen Ginsberg.
Reading Kerouac drops you right in the center of the titans of the Beat Generation, which must have been an incredible time to be alive. America, emerging and maturing as a super-power, is encountering “The Other” as it looks outwardly, internationally. Kerouac shows the reader that interaction with “The Other” does not have to involve an oppositional identity. With arms wide open and a belly full of red wine, he embraces the world so tight, there’s no separation.
“[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
— Jack Kerouac, On the Road
“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there, with the Ma-Wink fallopian virgin warm stars reflecting on the outer channel fluid belly waters. And if your cans are redhot and you can’t hold them in your hands, just use good old railroad gloves, that’s all.”
— Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Honorable Mention – Hunter S Thompson
I haven’t read Thompson as extensively as the others on this list, but he deserves a mention. Johnny Depp’s performance of this almost entirely unedited quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gives me chills every single time.
A Few Parting Words
As I go through what I’ve written above, I’m realizing another pattern – white males. At least I’ve got a few countries represented – Coleridge was English, Coupland is Canadian, Kerouac’s family was French Canadian though he was raised in America; Robbins and Thompson and Wallace are all Americans. I need a little more diversity in my summer reading. Now that you know what kind of writing gets my heartbeat racing – any recommendations?