Which writers have changed your life?

My husband gave me a Kindle for Christmas, and recently I gave some thought as to what kind of books I’d want to read on the device. I realized there were certain types of books – and writers – I would still want to read in print form, because it was easier for me to re-read or mark certain pages for future reference. And of course, certain genres, such as poetry, still feel better in print to me, despite my own experience having my poems published in online journals.

This made me start thinking about who were my favorite writers – the ones who changed the way I thought about language, subject matter or the state of my own existence. This is hardly a comprehensive a list, but thought I’d share some of my “desert island” writers:

Gertrude Stein: It took me a while to warm up to her, but what initially intrigued me about Stein was her writing on Picasso, who is one of my favorite artists of all time. She’s been ridiculed by many who think her writing is silly and impenetrable, but the truth is, she was a genius. She did for language what Picasso did for art, by reordering it in childlike wonder and delight, but with the technical precision of a master. I had the opportunity to do homage to Stein some years ago when I read a large section of “Patriarchal Poetry” for a Word + Praxis event I organized with some friends at Eyedrum, and it was an amazing to really experience the power of her words through her precise use of repetition and structural play. The other thing I love about Stein is how much she reminds me of my beloved Jewish grandmother, who, coincidentally enough, loved Modernist-era art and introduced me to Picasso’s work at an early age.

Bernadette Mayer: One of the things that has impressed me so much about Mayer’s poetry and prose is her ability to write about everyday, domestic life without ever becoming boring, predictable or sentimental. She was equally able to hang it all out between the seedy environment of the Lower East Side in the 70s (Memory) and the bucolic small-town life in Lenox, Mass (Midwinter’s Day.) Mayer can take the most banal details of daily existence and make it intensely personal and engaging through her keen observation and use of language. When I got pregnant with my daughter, I think I had it in my head that I was going to be like her, a very maternal presence who also wrote kick-ass avant-garde poetry. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but there’s always time.

Jack Kerouac: Forget On the Road and Dharma Bums. Both great books and I love them in my own ways, but they aren’t why Kerouac holds a special place in my heart. It’s San Francisco Blues, Pomes all Sizes, Book of Blues and Big Sur that spun me around. It was the first time I recalled reading poetry and hearing jazz in it so perfectly it could have been written for musical accompaniment. It was the first time I encountered a writer obsessively devoted to his craft who also battled his demons and delusions openly in every sentence to the point of acute discomfort. I related to Kerouac, because like me, he struggled with his deep attraction to Buddhism and meditative practice, but couldn’t quite shake his Catholic guilt and desire for worship. He’s the bad boy who destroys his life, breaks your heart but you love him anyway. The end.

Frank O’Hara: One of the things I love so much about O’Hara is that his love of the energy and small details of city life (in his case, New York City) so closely matches my own experience. For me, walking through familiar haunts in Manhattan is like stepping back into one of his poems. But beyond that, he had hysterical wit, amazing turns of phrase and drop dead endings that still take my breath away. And he understood painters, had the heart of a painter but used words instead. That’s an amazing and rare quality. I sometimes imagine I’ve gone back in time to see him strolling through the MOMA, out the door and right into the scene of one of his lunch poems.

And then we get to…

Pema Chödrön: I don’t need self-help books. I don’t need therapy. All I need is to read one of Ani Pema’s books on spiritual practice and her calm, compassionate, humorous perspective instantly grounds me.  I like that she doesn’t act as if she’s special. And yet she has this incredible ability to help us see our potential for experiencing loving-kindness and happiness by staying present in the face of our own suffering. It doesn’t sound like a fun process, but she makes it seem bearable somehow. Her words get me in my heart all the time and I’m always grateful for it. Ani Pema takes her practice very seriously, but not so much herself. I saw a PBS special with her a few years ago, and was absolutely tickled to see pictures of her garbed not in her usual saffron and red robes, but a Catwoman outfit for trick-or-treating with her grandchildren. How awesome is that?

Shunryu Suzuki: I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind around the same time I began practicing zazen. It was at a transitional and difficult time in my life. I had just started a new job, was in the process of planning a return to school part-time, and was in an emotionally turbulent relationship. It was hard to feel any peace or spaciousness in the midst of this chaos. Suzuki’s book was like a zafu for my mind. It helped me sit still, open up and observe everything in a way that allowed me to begin the process of transforming my thinking. Zen is not so easy to penetrate, but his wisdom resonated deeply within me. It is a book that fundamentally changed my life and one I return to when I need guidance for living. Suzuki’s saying, “The most important point is to accept yourself and stand on your two feet” has been one of my statements to live by, as well as his teachings on beginner’s mind.

There are more writers I could mention (and may, in a subsequent post) but I would love to hear which writers influenced and inspired you!

(Photo credit: Horia Varlan on Flickr)

7 responses to “Which writers have changed your life?”

  1. You have a great list! I’ll have to think about mine. Stein will be on mine too and several of the Beat writers.

    1. Dana Lisa Young Avatar
      Dana Lisa Young

      Another fan of Stein! 🙂 Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. I love Kerouac as well. I have a tattoo of a song from the band Jawbreaker that references “reading Kerouac.” These are some great picks. I used to think that Steinbeck changed my life, but recently I read Soaring Above Co-Addiction by Lisa Espich and I feel like that’s taken a place on my top 5 books of all time.

  3. Would it be an odd thing to say my father although I can’t really read any of his books without breaking out the 3 inch thick Chinese/English dictionary? He is my inspiration to read and evolve and to be an author.

    1. Dana Lisa Young Avatar
      Dana Lisa Young

      I don’t think it’s odd at all! I’m glad to hear he was an inspiration to you. I’m sure your father would have been pleased to know that. My grandparents (who you may remember – they passed away in ’85/’86) are a huge source of inspiration for me in terms of education and the arts.

      1. Thanks! A shame I will never really know.

        And I remember! Your room was lined with cork board which was great acoustics for when you were into the guitar and there were books EVERYWHERE! ^.^

      2. Dana Lisa Young Avatar
        Dana Lisa Young

        No guitar anymore (the last one I had I gave to an Indian colleague of mine for her son – in India) but my house is still full of books!

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