Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Your voice matters. And not just the literary one

Which author, book and/or movie has influenced you the most?

by Rebecca Cantrell

I know you probably expect me to list some great literary fiction that I love, like Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook" and Elie Wiesel's "Night" or "Dawn." Or maybe thriller writers I’ve gotten into lately, like James Rollins and Brent Ghelfi. Or maybe mystery writers that let me step into a time machine and consider hard questions, like Anne Perry or Arianna Franklin. And all of those would be perfectly true.

But I’m going to talk instead about books I read aloud, because they’ve influenced me a great deal. I read aloud to my son. A lot. We stop at the bookstore almost every day after school to do homework, drink a milk, and read.

Now the books we read lean more toward The Edge Chronicles and Spacecraft and Vehicles of the Entire Star Wars Saga, but back in the day we read a lot of Doctor Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown (Good Night Moon, The Runaway Bunny). In a book you are going to read, say 50 times, you notice every single word. That’s where I understood the genius of these writers.

Doctor Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown OWN you as a reader. You can’t not put the stress where they want you too. “I ran and found a Brickel bush. I hid myself away. I got brickels in my britches, but I stayed there anyway.”or “Good-night room, good night moon.”

If you compare this to say “Max and the Magic Pony.” you understand, painfully, the difference between great and barely good enough. “Max and the Magic Pony” is a perfectly fine story, but the prose is unreadable. My son loved it and wanted to read it every night. And it was horrible. Every single time. I read that book 21 times before it “accidentally” fell behind the bookcase and did not resurface for 2 years.

But I could read “Spooky Empty Pants” or “Good-Night Moon” every single day (and did some weeks). Why? Because the authors understood sentence rhythm. They knew that each word matters, and they always picked the right ones.

Sure, I heard about that in college when I was taking creative writing. But reading good children’s books was an enforced lesson in poetry. It wasn’t until I had to read every single word in a story over and over and over that I got it deep in my bones: Every word matters. It’s not just the meaning. It’s the sound. It’s the stress. I learned to channel Dr. Seuss, and it helps my writing.


Jen Forbus said...

Awesome choice, Rebecca! I completely agree. Every time I read Dr. Seuss, I hear and feel that rhythm that is meant to be there. A couple other writers I experienced that with: Shel Silverstein and Eric Carle (my nephew only wanted to read THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR for a long time). And Shel Silverstein is a person I think should be read aloud always, even if you're all alone read it out loud - it's so much more fun!

Gabi said...

Yeah, that Dr. Seuss had game.

Unknown said...

Dr. Seuss or Emily Dickinson, writing about meeting a snake:

But never met this fellow,

Attended or alone,

Without a tighter breathing,

And zero at the bone.

(that zero at the bone line froze us all in poetry class, so MODERN sounding!)

I can't even figure out how not to start every other sentence with a pronoun. But you got to start somewhere :)

My husband and I read Windsor McCay's Little Nemo Sunday newspaper page out loud to each other as often as we can. Windsor captured the transition from pastoral to industrial, wild whimpsy and clear observation all wrapped up in the words as well as the pictures.

I miss Dr. Seuss!

Thanks for a great thought piece!!


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hi Jen,

Love Shel Silverstein too! Just Clarence Lee and his TV last night before bed (about a boy who buys new parents from a TV ad and lives happily ever after). Been reading it a lot. Maybe that's a warning...

Eric Carle does grand illustrations too. Have you read his monsters book? It's a compilation of poetry from various authors with his wonderful illos. Highly recommended. Got a German Caterpillar the other day and it was fun too.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hey Gabi,

Yup. Game. Sales. Immortality. What's not to aspire to? And his did all those cartoons about murdering...insects for Flit, so he's even kind of a crime writer.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Mysti, for the Dickinson! I am constantly amazed at how your brain works (no, in a good way). That is a great piece. Isn't it amazing how "modern" some authors sound? I've been reading a lot of Rilke lately and he is just amazing. Gotta get "Letters to a Young Poet" for my office.

Dorte H said...

A very useful piece of advice. I came across a woman recently who wanted to write nursery rhymes. Good idea. The problem was that though they looked okay at the first glance, one literally stumbled through them.

Some people seem to think it is easier to write children´s books, but with three grown children who loved their good night stories I know exactly what you are trying to tell these writers.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hello Dorte! Thanks for commenting. Writing for children is closer to poetry than prose. Just because there aren't as many words doesn't mean it is easier. It's harder, I think, because of the scrutiny each word receives and the repetition. I somehow doubt that any of our grownup novels will be read aloud 50 times in a row. :)

Still, I do read all my novels aloud at least twice. Time-consuming, but it makes a difference.

Jen Forbus said...

I like to read books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD out loud. To hear the dialect is important. I use to read it aloud to my high school students so they could understand how Harper Lee was using it to develop character.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Reading aloud reveals different aspects, doesn't it? I've read The Hobbit aloud three times now and still love it. I amrereading Harry Potter aloud and it is much funnier that way we are up to book 5, last time it took 6 months, but I think this one will go faster). I've read aloud to my husband when he was sick and that's great fun too. The whole experience is different.

Wish I'd had you as my teacher, Jen!

Shane Gericke said...

Some years ago, I read NIGHT, and was so moved I just had to meet Elie Wiesel. To my good fortune, he was speaking at a synagogue not that far from my house. We got tickets (it was a Jewish United Fund fundraising event), and headed there. I brought along a photo that I had taken on the trip to Jerusalem, a picture I thought truly reflected the yin and yang of that incredible country: a pious Jewish man praying at the ancient stone blocks of the Western Wall ... with a big-ass rifle strapped across his back. I wanted Elie to sign it, so I could hang it in my house. Long story short, he did, was most gracious doing it, and we had a nice conversation. Then he went on to his speech.

So I'm glad NIGHT was one of your reads, too, Rebecca.

Shel and Seuss remain among my favorite writers, too.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hi Shane,

You met Eli Wiesel? Wow! I think I would have turned into a babbling fan girl.

NIGHT blew my socks off. I read it when I 13 and I think it was my introduction to the Holocaust (I take my history straight up, no secondary sources for me). I was stunned not just by the horrors that he described, but also by the stark, simple, and devastating way he used language to describe them.

I got a request to review his latest book (A MAD DESIRE TO DANCE) and was very intimidated. I managed to do it though (I mean, imagine NOT reviewing his book and having it not get coverage). Loved it, of course, although it was much more...French than his earlier stuff.

Shane Gericke said...

Elie is a kind, patient man, yet incredibly direct and unflinching in his assessments of the state of the world and the possibilities of future holocausts. I liked him a lot, in the all-too-brief time we had in that photo signing.

And Elie's famous photo in NIGHT, as an inmate in the bunkbeds at the concentrate camp--Birkenau, I think, but cannot recall right now--remains one of the most haunting images of the war for me. Or of anytime, since "ethnic cleansing" goes on all the time, now and forever.

I hear you on intimidation by your writing heroes! I volunteered to write about John Sandford and his PREY books for next year's ITW anthology, The 100 Must-Read Thrillers of All Time. It took me forEVER to write that thing, because I was incredibly self-conscious about writing about my No. 1 fave writer in the entire universe and Pluto.

The draft I sent in sucked so bad that David Morrell and Hank Wagner, the editors, gently suggested I take another crack at it. They were very good about it, which I appreciated. I had gotten over Fan Boy Syndrome by then, and the rewrite turned out just great.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Good for you for working through your Fan Boy syndrome. I think we all have blocks like that. When does the ITW book come out?

Kelli Stanley said...

Wonderful post, Becks! You know how much I love Seuss ... probably our first tip-toe into poetry.

Interestingly enough, in the ancient world, everything was read aloud. In late antiquity, I think it was Augustine who was considered an oddball because he read to himself, and didn't vocalize.

And Shane, all I can say is ... Wow. Elie Wiesel. I think I would have been tongue-tied. Or maybe would have just burst into tears.

And Tim, my friend, NOX will probably be difficult to find right now--should be out of print soon, if it isn't already ... I'll bring you a book next year in New York. Thanks for thinking of us, and for being the wonderful writer and guest that you are!! :)


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Hi Kelli,

Glad you like it. I knew you'd have some cool classical reference to mix in. Augustine was the first one to read to himself, hmmm? Wonder if his lips moved while he was doing it. :)