Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Glass half full Cathy Ace

READING: What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

I’ll be upfront about this – I am not going to answer today’s question the way it’s been set.

I’ll admit that, over the decades, I’ve read many books that “weren’t my cup of tea”, “didn’t speak to me” or “live up to the hype”…but I cannot believe anyone ever sets out to write a “bad” book, and – just because I didn’t enjoy it – it doesn’t mean others shared my opinion. Quite often I’ll return to a book I once didn’t care for and find it fresh and entertaining/thought-provoking etc., which reinforces my opinion that the reader plays a critical role in the process of “connection” along with the author, and I don’t like to “call out” a book just because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to “get it” or “enjoy it” when I first encountered it. 

Call me rebellious if you must, but I’d much rather write about some books which have inspired me, in general terms, to write, so here goes…

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young girl. I even went to university to study English with the aim of starting on the path toward writing. I packed in that course to study psychology instead, but that’s another story…

Me, aged 16

So, join me back when I was a girl of sixteen, a pupil at Llwyn-y-bryn Senior Comprehensive School (high school) in Swansea, Wales. My school was over a hundred years old and had been where girls (yes, it was girls only) on an academic path had been sent for all those years. It was the school my mother attended. 
By the time I arrived that system had been killed off, and I was the second year of “unfiltered” girls. Constantly berated for running in the halls by teachers who’d only ever had to deal with obedient, well-brought-up young ladies, it was a strange experience; as much like a public school (which means a private school in North America) as it’s possible to get for a state school (which would be a public school in North America)in Wales, there was a constant tension between the staff and pupils, which increased as the girls in the years above us left (graduated) and the school gradually filled up with “us lot”. The teachers hated it – and we hated them. 

Now, this school – built for and inhabited by girls with an academic bent – had two libraries; the “Upper” was ornate, filled with floor-to-ceiling dark-wood bookshelves, reminiscent of the sort of thing one might see in an episode of Morse. The “Lower” was more utilitarian. Both were filled with the classics (by which I mean classic fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry) and academic texts. By the time I’d reached the Lower Sixth Form I had read my way around the shelves and had fallen in love with not only Shakespeare, but also Goethe, Mann, Camus, Zola, Wesker, Blake, Beckett, Brecht, Osborne, Dylan Thomas (of course!), and Austen…I could go on, but will spare you! Here's a photo of just a few of them...

How, you might ask, did I come to own all these books? Yes, they are from that school’s library. Well, I didn’t steal them! I was a volunteer librarian aged seventeen and helped organize the sell-off of many of the books, since the “Upper” library was to be closed, the space being needed for extra pupils. The main way I helped? I sorted the books to be sold. The fact that many of them ended up being the ones I wanted to buy (for 5 pence each, by the way) was a pure coincidence!

I LOVED those years in the library, and I still LOVE those books. I think I have re-read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann every year since 1974. It changes as I do. The mark of brilliant writing. Same thing with Nana, by Emile Zola. It changes every time I read it. More layers of meaning reveal themselves. 

So – without going into an exhaustive list, the works by the greats made me want to write…those who won Nobel prizes, those who informed social and political discussions, those who tackled the role of philosophy in everyday life, those who challenged the status quo, those who painted with words and made the language sing…I’ll just say that I hope you have writers in your life who motivate you too!


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Paul D. Marks said...

Cathy, I think it is the greats that make us want to write. Books we don't respond to don't motivate us to go forward, unless we have a sort of "I can do better than that" attitude. But mostly, at least for me, it's good books that inspired me to tackle the blank page.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Cathy. I've done that too, put a book aside because it didn't work for me, only to pick it up a year or so later and liking it.

Susan C Shea said...

Yes, Cathy, yes! I was an English and Comparative Lit double major in college, by which time I was swimming in the examples of great books. It was the books, not the teachers, who taught me what to admire and adore about writing. Funny that I've never been able to wade through Thomas Mann, but you have inspired me, so on the about-to-topple TBR list it goes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback folks. I am having some trouble with replying via my phone (on the road). �� Cathy