A Thanksgiving Post About Writing and Books

Rather than take the usual route of expressing my gratitude during this Thanksgiving season for family, friends, health, enough food, a comfortable home, meaningful work, and so on (all of which I am thankful for, in case anybody wonders), this year I would like to thank those whose written words have challenged and inspired me. As something of a writer myself, I confess to being just a little bit jealous of people who are able to use the English language with great skill, spin carefully crafted stories that keep me in suspense, teach me history while I’m reading a great story, help me think through difficult issues, articulate points of view with clarity, conviction and compassion, and help me laugh at myself and the often absurd world in which we live. Beyond the jealousy, however, I am grateful for them.

I thought about this last week when Dale and I went to hear Anne Lamott speak at a stop on her tour to promote her new book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Anne has been one of my favorite writers ever since someone pointed me in the direction of her columns at Salon.com many years ago. I loved her irreverent and honest take on Christian faith – her ability to say what many of us think and feel but either wouldn’t have the courage to say or wouldn’t be able to say half as well, along with her willingness to be brutally honest and vulnerable about her struggles in life and in faith. I soon discovered her books of essays on faith, such as Traveling Mercies. She writes fiction (which I don’t like as well), and she’s written honest and very funny “memoirs” about the first year of her son’s life and the birth of her grandson (co-written with her son). One of my favorite books about writing is Bird by Bird, her book of “instructions on writing and life.” I am thankful for people like Anne who write about faith and ordinary life in ways that make me say, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is. That’s just the way I feel. I wish I’d said that!”

In my dreams, I have sometimes been writing my version of the proverbial “Great American Novel,” but it’s never going to get beyond the dream stage because I’m quite sure I don’t have it in me to write good fiction. That becomes clearer to me every time I read another particularly well-written piece of fiction, such as two novels I read the past several weeks. I am in awe of the way Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch is able to write convincingly from the point of view of an adolescent and then young adult male, how she crafts a suspenseful story that keeps the reader thoroughly engaged while also exploring such difficult and wildly diverse issues as post-traumatic stress disorder and the underworld of fine art theft. (OK, so the book got a little long, but who’s counting pages?!) I love Alice McDermott’s simple but eloquent use of language in her portrayal in Someone of the ordinary life of a woman who isn’t famous or accomplished in the traditional way we think of those qualities but who is “someone” special to those who care about her.

Good fiction, besides telling great stories and introducing us to memorable characters, also instructs and teaches history. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer of Americanah, I learned how African immigrants in America often view race issues, how life is different for them as blacks than for African Americans who have lived here for generations. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings tells a story of slavery from the point of view of a slave and her owner, one of the real Grimke sisters from South Carolina who eventually joined the abolitionist movement. Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin artfully uses a real photograph taken during the Great Depression to imagine the story of the woman in the photograph. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders revives a true story of heroism from the time of the Great Plague in 17th century England by putting us in the mind of one woman who lived through it. Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage may be one of the most horrific novels I’ve ever read, but it was also one of the best. The subject matter – life inside a Burmese prison where torture was routine – was painfully difficult to read, but the novel was beautifully written and taught me much about not only conditions in Burma/Myanmar in the early 1990s but also how one individual can choose to transcend the unspeakable cruelty that others inflict on him and still show kindness to others.

I’m certainly grateful for writers of good fiction, but I’m also grateful for those who do painstaking research to shed light on an issue or a particular time in history, or who tell their own or their family’s stories. I think of Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which she wrote after three years of interviewing people who lived in the Annawadi slum on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport. Or the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which describes in excruciating detail the way the criminal justice system has been structured to lock millions of African Americans behind bars and turn them into second-class citizens for the rest of their lives. Or To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, which describes a senseless war if there ever was one (World War I) and those who fought it and resisted it. Or Sonia Nazario’s account in Enrique’s Journey of a Honduran boy who braved incredible danger to follow his mother to the United States – a book that has particular relevance and poignance in the midst of the current debate about immigration reform. Or Kimi Grant Cunningham’s story in Silver Like Dust of her Japanese grandparents’ internment in a camp during World War II, shedding light on a particularly shameful part of our history.

This wouldn’t be complete without mention of all those who write thoughtful and articulate pieces on current issues, who challenge my thinking, and who remain respectful and kind even when mean-spiritedness and divisiveness seem to rule the day. Some of them I know personally and some I’ve come to know by reading their columns or blogs. Thank you! And then there all those individuals who have responded to my requests to write for the various publications I’ve edited over the years and who have graciously submitted themselves to my editorial pen. I’m even thankful after the fact for some who took issue with what I did to their writing because they helped me learn how to build good working relationships and become a better editor.

I couldn’t wait to learn how to read when I was a child, and I have been reading ever since. I can’t imagine life without books and writing. Reading has enriched my life in so many ways, and has definitely made me a better writer and editor. While my writing doesn’t begin to compare to that of the writers I’ve mentioned above, I learn from them, and occasionally some of what I learn actually makes its way into what I write. So this Thanksgiving, I say thank you to all the wonderful writers whose work I’ve already read and whose books and articles I’ve yet to discover.





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