Monthly Archives: January 2012

An aspiring writer finds inspiration in The Things They Carried

There are a lot of books I have read in my life that served as touchstones from A Wrinkle in Time to Something Wicked This Way Comes, but The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was as a guidepost when I desperately needed one. After graduate school I spent a couple of frustrated years trying to figure out how to write about Alaska flying in a nonacademic way. I knew it was a subject people were interested in and coming up with ideas was not a problem but the narrative structure was stubbornly elusive. I wanted to write about Alaska aviation as I experienced it while working for a bush commuter in Fairbanks, but I didn’t want to make the book about me. I wasn’t looking for a personal story or a conventional history or a “men vs the elements” adventure title. I found myself grasping for a literary hybrid but couldn’t find the way into making it real. Then I read The Things They Carried and everything – everything – became clear.

The funny thing is this wasn’t my first O’Brien book. Both If I Die in a Combat Zone and In the Lake of the Woods were books that impressed me a great deal. I didn’t see the correlation between bush aviation and war until I read Things however. The direct connection was found in the stories. As O’Brien wrote, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” The same can be said of flying stories; every pilot lies and yet every flying story is true.

Once I understood this I accepted that the stories were what mattered the most to us at the “Company”. As I wrote my book, the stories were what I focused on which meant writing a lot about things like the cold and crashes and cargoes as varied as wedding cakes and sled dogs. But more importantly,The Map Of My Dead Pilots became a book about the stories we tell each other when the work we do is surreal and a little bit crazy. The Things They Carried showed me how to craft a narrative around that reality and also how to build a structure in a way that encompassed a large cast of characters while making each of them individually memorable and as a group unforgettable. The relief of knowing that such a structure could exist was immeasurable and gave me the confidence to write the book I had been carrying around for so long.

O’Brien also wrote “But this too is true: stories can save us.” More than anything, The Map of My Dead Pilots is about how stories helped me and the people I worked with to remember a place and time that impacted us in powerful and permanent ways. In terms of who I am at this moment and the future I am striving to create, there could be no more significant a book in my life. The Things They Carried showed me what truth really is, and how I could in turn share mine with the world.

Colleen Mondor’s book, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska was published in November 2011.

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Filed under Creativity / Inspiration, Things They Carried (The), Tim O'Brien

A reluctant reader discovers Silk

I had very little to do with books between the ages of about 12 to 18. School and university assignments had me read under duress, which compounded a sense of apathy which wasn’t broken until I discovered the works of Poppy Z. Brite. I read Lost Souls and Drawing Blood and Exquisite Corpse and, having loved them all, I hungered for more.

While on the prowl I discovered Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Silk (1998). A startling, unflinching, imaginative story which refused to patronise or spoon-feed its readers. Fresh, daring characters; some you may find difficult to like or sympathise with, but none you could disregard. All this, married to a distinctive writing style which opened my eyes to the possibilities of language. As a reader, the words escaped the page; I was immersed in this impossible, beautiful, terrifying universe – the fates of Spyder, Daria, Niki and the others took on a significance as relevant to me as anything in “real” life.

As someone with aspirations of becoming a writer myself, Silk demonstrated that language is something vital and alive. All the punctuation marks are present and correct (compared to another of favourite authors, Hubert Selby Jr.), but the structure – the rhythm of the thing itself – was like nothing I’d ever encountered before. Lyrical, instinctual, undeniably poetic without being impenetrable or meandering into pretense. Her style has coloured every essay, letter, e-mail, card, text message and blog I’ve written ever since.

Many find her later works more accessible (The Red Tree should already be on your bookshelf), and the short story collection Tales of Pain and Wonder is probably my favourite book of all time. But Silk is the one. It reset my wetware: I suddenly understood the devotion my friends had for Lord of the Rings growing up. Why my mother was able to forsake the television in favour of John Le Carre or Ellis Peters.

Perhaps I’m something of a late starter. Ultimately I’m failing to explain the importance Kiernan and her work has had on my life. I urge you to buy this book, and I hope you get caught in her web the same way I did.

Written by Ryan C.

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Filed under Caitlin R. Kiernan, Reluctant Reader, Silk

Laid up in the hospital with The Warrior’s Path

The Warrior's PathWhen I was 12 years old, my family had been in England for two years.  You’d think that I would have learned by then that, in England, they drive on the opposite side of the road, but old habits die hard.  I started to cross the street having only looked to my left, and when I turned to look to my right, much to my surprise, there was a Ford Escort bearing down on me at high speed.  I managed to get mostly out of the way, so I got to spend a month in an English hospital instead of going directly to a lovely plot of ground with some nice trees.

I’d always been a big reader, but I hadn’t honestly expanded my literary horizons much.  I was all about the Hardy Boys and solving mysteries.  While I lay in that hospital bed, someone gave me a book.  A very different book from the type I normally read.  The cover had a bearded man in buckskins, hunched down behind a giant rhododendron while some rather determined looking Indians seemed to be hunting him.  That book was called The Warrior’s Path, and it was written by Louis L’Amour.

Bored and out of “good” reading material, I turned to this odd looking book.  Before I finished the first chapter, I was hooked.  Not just on that book, but on all things L’Amour.  Thankfully, there were a lot more books where that came from!  It didn’t take me long to amass a collection of every single book Louis L’Amour ever wrote.  I’ve read every single one of them at least five times, and they are still proudly displayed on my bookshelf of favorite books.

Of course, there are now myriad different genres on my bookshelves, and I like to think that I’m a pretty well read man, but I can point to that moment in time and know that it really started there.  So, Mr. L’Amour, I thank you for introducing me JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Orson Scott Card, Patrick Rothfuss, HP Lovecraft,  Stephen Lawhead, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Warren Ellis, Brandon Sanderson, Harlan Ellison, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Preston & Child, Robert Jordan, and dozens of others who have enriched my life. Thank you.

Written by Joshua O.

 

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Filed under Illness, Louis L’Amour, Warrior's Path (The)