Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reading Made Me Write

This month’s blog question? What writers have influenced you?
For me, it began in sixth grade. My elementary school had a library, a musty room in the basement where certain select students were chosen to be librarians. A lot of (boring, bookish) sixth grade girls thought lining up book spines in perfect, straight lines was fun.

Oh, wait. That would be me.

I didn’t mind shelving books because that meant I got to see what everybody was reading (I was a nosy-busybody type back then) and I could take new books home first. Like those Childhood of Famous Americans series, their orange and their turquoise covers calling to me as loudly as their titles: Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl, and Frances Marion: Young Swamp Fox. Remember those? Don’t say you’re too young because they’re still being published even though they’ve totally fallen out of favor with many educators. Bad combination of truth and fiction. Terrible writing model? Maybe. But I only stopped reading them when a new Nancy Drew book hit the stores.

Luckily, my teachers actually read great books aloud each day after lunch. In 5th grade, Mrs. Wiggins read Tom Sawyer. In sixth grade, Miss Cain read the Old Testament. (This was a while ago, when nobody cared what happened behind the closed doors of a classroom) And sometimes the library girls got to pick the books they read. Oh, we reveled in our lofty position.

By the time I hit high school, I was a dedicated library aide. I still got to read the new books first, carefully opening them so as not to crack their pristine spines. And I hung out in the library work room with all those date due stamps and 3X5 cards, stacks of special tape and book pockets and – well, I digress. Back to the books I loved.

In my high school library, my taste improved. I gravitated to the gigantic section of Mississippi Writers. They reached from floor to ceiling, those shelves. Eudora Welty, Ben Ames Williams, Margaret Walker. Many of the names have slipped into history and out of my mind, but I still read Eudora Welty’s stories when I need to remember what it is to be a perfect storyteller.

Those early books shaped my love of reading and writing. When it came time to choose a career path- no surprise- I became a school librarian. Reading books aloud to young children gave me an ear for language, and sharing books made me think hard about who it would appeal to, and why. All good skills for my future as a book reviewer. Not great preparation for writing fiction, I’ve learned. I was reading like a teacher. I needed to read like a writer. So I set out to read differently.

I’d always loved books by Southerners, set in the South. Since I hoped to write middle-grade fiction, I chose books created by writers whose books won awards voted on by actual young readers. Plus, I was now looking for something. I was trying to decode how a writer could portray real, true, honest Southerners who didn’t sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. No offense to Jed Clampett or Daisy May and Ellie May, but that wasn’t the South I knew and loved.

First I reread Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May. How could she write so poetically a book that children loved so much? I was captivated by her first sentence:

When May died, Ob came back to the trailer, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night.

How could you not love that writing?

I moved on to Deborah Wiles’ Each Little Bird That Sings. Hey, wait a minute. I had a friend like Comfort who lived next to a funeral parlor and I’d never thought about how that felt till Comfort told me. My childhood friend was just a normal girl whose family ran the funeral home. Comfort was far more interesting. But I took that book apart to see how a person like that might jump from real life (mine) to a made-up, fun-to-read-about, real live character in a book. With a few extraordinary twists, as it turns out.

One of my truly favorite writers about the South, Barbara O’Connor writes books that remind me so much of home. But now I had to stop myself from reading too fast, turning pages, sighing and worrying over her characters. Because now I had a mission. How’d she do that? I tore apart the scenes, slowly. I examined the dialogue beats. I creeped up on her language and made lists of words that were also part of my own voice. Durn. Like to Died.

After Barbara O’Connor, I discovered Kerry Madden’s mountain trilogy and knew I not only needed those funny, interesting, strange characters, the way they talked and the places they lived and cared about. But oh, no! I also needed a story. Plot. The hard part. Dang.

It was time to stop and write. And I realized how difficult writing good fiction is. How much work it is to sound so seamless.

By now I’d reread much of what I’d been handing to students in my libraries, saying “this is perfect, you’ll love it” and I’d re-focused on how writers actually put great books together.

So, this blog is asking this June, who influenced my writing?

All those early teachers—including grandparents and other caregivers who read to me. All those authors, from a long time ago, the great Southern writers from Miss Eudora to Ms. Madden.

Thanks, y’all.

Augusta Scattergood reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor, the St. Petersburg Times, Delta Magazine. Her essays and articles have appeared in Skirt! Magazine, Mississippi Magazine, Highlights for Children and various other publications. However, her big break in fiction is yet to happen, but she'll keep reading, writing and hoping.


Julie Kibler said...

I'm an RSS reader, and never comment on here, but I had to after reading this.

I LOVED those Childhood of Famous Americans books. I was just trying to describe them to my group of writer friends last week, and today, your italicized Jane Addams title jumped out of my RSS feed like an old friend! I couldn't wait each week to go to the public library and see if I could find one I hadn't read yet.

And my own daughter brought home Each Little Bird that Sings last school year. We learned to make perfect iced tea from that book.

And ... having removed the word "Dadgummit" from my recent manuscript because a crit partner said, "Does anyone actually say this?" I am putting it BACK IN. Thank you for reminding me it's perfectly okay to use the words we actually say.

Lee Stokes Hilton said...

Delightful. Took me right back to the high school library where Mrs. Spicer allowed me to spend Study Hall as her assistant.