“Even on those occasions when he had no active hand in something I wrote, the choices I made, the way I approached a subject, the order in which I told what I knew, the attitude I adopted were determined by his example and his influence.”
Alec Wilkinson, My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell.
I am currently reading, Mentors, Muses and Monsters edited by Elizabeth Benedict, a rather fascinating collection of thirty essays by writers about the people who changed their life, i.e. led them to become writers. Yet Benedict notes in her Introduction that it isn’t always a particular writer who can turn a person to a writing life.
It can also be a specific book as Michael Cunningham says in describing the life-long influence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It might also be a group of writers or a periodical, or indeed, an institution that can have this kind of impact on an individual. For example Jane Smiley points to her first year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Benedict also indicates that none of the thirty writers told “the archetypal story of artist and muse: the great man inspired in his great work by a moan destined to play second fiddle, or no fiddle at all.”
As I think back upon my own experience, not that I can lay claim to being a writer, that is a real writer, one whose works are read by others, I can’t think of any single person or book let me to find pleasure in living a writing life. Some books or teachers have been more influential than others and have led to a line of inquiry that guided my work for a while or motivated me to read other books they wrote.
In the early days I was greatly influenced by the kind of magazine The New Yorker was during the period when it was publishing two or three short and not-so-short short stories in each issue, as well as long, analytical essays, profiles and film reviews. And I know that Hemingway’s early novels and short stories made a lasting impression on me.
But it was probably a collection of books assigned in a course I took as an undergraduate the exerted the great influence on my life. In the days when I was a freshman at Stanford every student took a full-year course in the history of Western Civilization and then if they wanted to, could follow it with another in the Humanities devoted to literature and the arts. Those courses and the books I read for them introduced me to the world of humanistic studies and I've never recovered from the experience or found an alternative that comes close.
Again, it wasn’t any particular teacher in the course, although there were several, some as scholarly and charismatic as teachers can be sometimes, nor was it any single book or author, but rather it was the total impact of the course itself and the collection of readings that I was introduced to that made all the difference in my life.
However, the majority of the writers in Benedict’s volume wrote about the individuals who inspired them in one way or another to become writers. For example, Jonathan Safran Foer claims, “that had he not gone to Yehuda Amichai’s reading as a high school student visiting Israel, he might never have become a writer.”
Surely one of the most glowing accounts Benedict recounts in her Introduction is that of Cheryl Strayed. “I love Alice Munro, I took to saying, the way I did about any number of people I didn’t know whose writing I admired, meaning, of course, that I loved her books…But I loved her too, in a way that felt slightly ridiculous, even to me."