I read pages 401-440 of The Cambridge History of Russia today. I am taking a brief break before reading around ten more pages for my “morning” section. In the evening/night I shall read another 50 pages of the same book. I am reading this because it is “research” for a book of novellas and novelettes I hope to call Tales from the Lands of the Firebird Part I. Without going deep into my reactions to The Cambridge History of Russia or what my book will be, I am only worried that I shall not be finished with my work in time for it to do any good, but am convinced the correct research needs to be done for it to be written well. After writing Tales of the Lands of the Firebird Part I, I hope to move on to researching and writing The Sheikhs Wife and Other Stories. After that I shall move back to two novels which I am neglecting because I want to write my political Odysseys set in the Russian orbit and in the Middle East: Oz Revisited and Jeanie and the Gentlefolk.
All of these books take research. It is a drawback of my way of writing that I cannot write without reading first. It is odd, but sometimes I get my ideas for my creative writing in reading other people’s books, fiction and nonfiction. I wish I could say that I, like Dickens, merely open the windows of my upstairs bedroom and the ideas wafted up about the place where I live–for him London and for me Kansas. Yet it is not so: I wrote my first real novel Brazil (as yet unpublished) based on a story in the Talmud recast in the country of Brazil. Then there was Faust in Love, for which I read the original German legend, Marlowe, Goethe, and Mann. Finally, my most ambitious project, The Bible According to Eve (now published as a four-volume set) is the stories of the women of the Hebrew Bible. And of course, Oz Revisited uses the characters from the fourteen-volume collection of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is as though my creativity is chained to the paths other writers have set.
My creativity–such as it is–is nursed on the nectars of other people’s creative blossoms. I am convinced, by the way, that even writers like Dickens, whose writing seems so effortless and so originally theirs, learn to write by reading other writers. T.S. Eliot, despite his famous quote about poetry, “Make it new,” also insisted that each written work is a piece commenting on the history before it. My own writing is, perhaps, even farther from modernism than Victorianism, and yet to make it unique I must read both. I cannot pretend that Hemmingway does not exist. It is helpful for me to read books like Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.
For my own part, I also delve deep into children’s fiction ranging from the folktales of Brothers Grimm and Joseph Jacobs; to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark; to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio; to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden; to Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux and Grace Linn’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Folktales in particular fascinate me…
Though I have read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, my favorite adult writer is Charles Dickens… followed by A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin and Masks by Enchi Fumiko (the author of the book I long to find time to read: The Waiting Years). Of the Victorian novelists, I also like the Brontë sisters, my favorite of their works being Charlotte’s Villette. My favorite American novelists are Hawthorne, Twain and Willa Cather, my favorite American poet is Emily Dickinson. I like Robert Service and Edwin Arlington Robinson, but my favorite British poets range include Sir Philip Sidney (and his sister Mary Pembroke), John Donne, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, both of the Brownings, and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Yet I acknowledge that no poet can write today–even in reaction to them–without having read T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. I also like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore. Someday I hope to read H.D. I admit my weakness as a poet–perhaps as a writer in general–is that I am not an omnivorous enough reader of the post-World War II era. Of today’s writers, there is a regional writer I particularly enjoy: Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek and The Truest Pleasure. Meanwhile, I do have two books I look forward to reading on my bookshelf: Richard Powers’ The Overstory and W. Bruce Cameron’s The Dog Master. I also hope to read Yellow Bird about the Iraq War. Though they are hardly neglected authors, I wish I could say I had read more of Joyce Carol Oats (of whose work I have read Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang only) and Doris Lessing (Whose The Golden Notebook lies on my shelf, unread).
I fully believe that an artist of any sort–whether an a novelist or a poet or a musician or composer or a painter or a sculptor–should be a student of Nature and History even outside of their field. I was actually a History major in college, and I read books like Bobcat: Master of Survival in my spare time. I have read and plan to reread Darwin’s Origin of Species. Right now I am reading Great Cats: Majestic Creatures of the World, a zoologist’s book about the biology and history of the Felidae Family. Though I have difficulty with books about animals and evolution, I believe I gain a great deal from them. Here are books I still look forward to reading: Prairie Dog Towns; Way of the Wolverine; Otters: Ecology, Biology, Conservation; and Soul of the White Ant. When I reread Origin of Species, afterwards I shall no doubt read Descent of Man. I also hope to read Jane Goodall including and beyond In the Shadow of Man. I began my quest to understand animals with a book Peacemaking Among Primates. Although I now believe that the author–Frans de Waal–was probably wrong about his theories regarding animals and ethics, I still love something about the animals themselves. (I will only say about his theory that whether animals can have thoughts about “right” and “wrong” while fascinating to speculate on will, I think, always be inconclusive at best. Nonetheless, I do believe that animals are capable of deep attachments and anger towards those who harm them.)
Although as an author I feel committed to the human world, I sometimes hope I can write about something along the line of what animals feel as well… I just do not know how it would be done, because for me it would always be a novel or a poem.
The point of all this is that a writer should be a writer. If a person does not have a fertile mind, full of ideas, the person will have nothing to say.