Amy Tan

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What Lights YOUR Muse’s Campfire?

It’s a fact of life: Famous writers inspire famous writers. Don’t believe it? Doubting your inner Thomas? You need only read Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler, wherein dozens of writerly-types share snippets of works that lit their muse’s campfire. Curious, I read the book–mostly–and here are a few for you:

  • Aimee Bender chooses Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” particularly the line “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
  • Sherman Alexie chooses a poem, too–one by the Paiute poet Adrian C. Louis called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” Alexie takes a shining to the line, “O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind” because the metaphor gives him license to be an Indian and write like an Indian, which he has done with great success.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert waxes poetic for her namesake (unrelated), Jack Gilbert, who I have written about on this blog before (I took him on an Amtrak ride last spring and wrote a poem about the experience, too, which landed in my new book). Gilbert comma Eliza swoons to Gilbert comma Jack’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” particularly the lines “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness on the ruthless / furnace of this world.” That Jack. He comes out metaphors a blazing, doesn’t he?
  • Amy Tan makes a more predictable choice: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
  • Junot Diaz taps Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. He especially loves this: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
  • Andre Dubus III tips his hat to Richard Bausch’s “Dear Writer.” In it, Bausch writes, “Do not think, dream.” That advice is for first drafts, by the way. After that, Logic, who has been pounding on the door, can be let in. See Dubus’s essay for particulars.
  • Billy Collins selects W. B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I will give that choice and Billy’s reasons its own post tomorrow. I love talking with BC.
  • Kathryn Harrison gives a shout-out to Joseph Brodsky. She cites the poem “On Love” and the lines “For darkness restores what light cannot repair.” If you like mysteries in the dark, you’ll take a shining to her essay.
  • David Mitchell? The talented novelist chooses a poem (God bless him, everyone!) by James Wright– perhaps Wright’s most famous: “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” It’s the equally famous finish he cites: “I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. / A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” Those last five words serve as a warning not only to Mitchell, but to all of us wasting time with stuff like “writer’s block” and other malware of the mind. Just do it! (That’s Nike for the sport of writing.)
  • Curiously, Tom Perrotta is inspired by Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play. “At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” The play moves Perrotta to tears to this day. And here I still have to read the thing!
  • Jonathan Lethem likes his Kafka, especially the short piece “Leopards in the Temple.” He notes the quote, “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the  sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” Let the leopards in, Lethem says. Spot on, I’d add.
  • Charles Simic is the second writer to point to Whitman. But it is a less well-known Whitman: the poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The line noted here is “Young man I think I know you–I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” Simic’s own wartime experiences as a boy in the Balkans creates the camaraderie with Whitman’s poem.
  • Emma Donoghue is one of two in the book who point to Emily Dickinson, the pride of Amherst, Mass. It’s the poem “Wild Nights–Wild Nights”: “Rowing in Eden– / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor–Tonight– / In thee!”
  • Claire Messed resurrects an old favorite seldom read nowadays, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “These fragments! I have shored against my ruins.” It’s an admittedly cool line, for those of us with both shores and ruins.
  • T.C. Boyle acknowledges Raymond Carver (also written about on these pages this past year). He loves the ending of the short story, “Cathedral,” specifically the lines “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. ‘It’s really something,’ I said.” In that scene, the narrator has his eyes shut, trying to reimagine life from a blind man’s dark point of view. You can see how that might connect to the writing life, no? Carver is the man.

Anyway, that’s a a sampling. In each essay, the author explains why the lines noted inspire, why they “light the dark,” so to speak, and feed their muse’s inner fires.

You can play the game, too, of course. It’s a popular pastime for writers to keep a quote posted to the wall above in their favorite writing spot, after all. For me, it’s Wislawa Szymborka’s poem, “The Joy of Writing.”

And you?