On Bright Young Things

Life Drawing by Robin BlackRobin Black’s New York Times commentary, What’s so Great About Young Writers?, struck a huge chord with me. Far more than European or Asian cultures, Americans embrace the cult of youth, likely because we still are a fledgling nation ourselves and equate energy, innovation, freedom and individualism, all prized American values, with being young.

I am among those lucky enough to have grown up in the relative safety of middle-class America, where there was always healthy food on the table, a place to rest my head at night, money enough for ballet classes or piano lessons, and parents who strongly believed in the importance of education and cultural and social awareness of the larger world.  I also am a product of a childhood in which of series of tragic deaths and illnesses resulted in a chaotic family life permanently scarred by trauma, loss and embitterment. When I was a child, novels, and to a lesser extent, movies and live theater, served both as my escape from that traumatic chaos and also as a way to help me make sense of it.  As such, books were these miraculous gifts created by mysterious, sentient beings known as authors, who were as remote as they were omnipotent.

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Living Abroad — Effects for Writers

I have been living abroad, in Glasgow, Scotland, for three months and have three more to go before I return to Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to take the picture below on Robert Burns Day from Georges Square, not far from where my flat is.

10929908_10202364296668697_8894003860628090647_nAnd yes, people do make Glasgow. Living here has been a challenge and a joy for me. I will always be grateful for the opportunity. A recent article in The Atlantic, For a More Creative Brain, Travel: How international experiences can open the mind to new ways of thinking has pulled me back to The Lyon Review. That article got me thinking a lot about how living abroad has affected me and I blogged about it at PamWritesSense of Connection & Living Abroad. We get comments from MHC alumnae near and far and I got to wondering, how many of our alums have had the opportunity to live abroad for some period of time? Abroad meaning anywhere far from home, landing in a culture unlike your home culture.

If that’s you, what did you learn in your time abroad?

Can you see effects in your writing? In other creative areas? In your life now?

Do you have any writing to submit to The Lyon Review that was inspired by or during your time abroad?? If you do, please visit the submission page here.

Joan Didion Shares Her Favorite Books of All Time

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Those of you who follow American literary culture carefully mayJoaninthe60s recently have heard that a documentary about Joan Didion’s life and writings is slated to be released in Fall 2015.  The documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, is being produced by Susanne Rostock and noted actor/director Griffin Dunne (Dunne is the nephew of John Gregory Dunne, who was both Didion’s husband and screen writing partner for more than 30 years, and about whose death she wrote so eloquently in The Year of Magical Thinking).

As part of the Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to complete the film, Didion Joan todaysupporters, including yours truly, received a hand-written list of Didion’s favorite books as a thank you.  Didion’s essays and political writings are heavily influenced by many of her contemporaries of the 60s and 70s, particularly other New Journalists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. When it came to fiction, though, she largely draws on authors writing one or two generations before her, including Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, James Baldwin and Ford Madox Ford. Didion is particularly noted for first mastering, then outshining, Hemingway when it comes to his “iceberg” theory of writing, which posits that what is deliberately left off the page resonates more deeply than what does appear (i.e., how the author’s use of specific words, syntax, repetition, rhythm and cadence enables readers to implicitly understand what lies beneath the surface of the text itself, or what we today call “the emotional subtext”).

Here then are the favorite books and authors that Didion turns to time and time again:

  • A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway
  • Victory (1914) by Joseph Conrad
  • Guerrillas (1975) by VS Naipaul
  • Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell
  • Wonderland (1971) by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
  • The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Crime & Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Appointment in Samarra (1934) by John O’Hara
  • The Executioner’s Song (1979) by Norman Mailer
  • Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw all by Henry James (1843-1916)
  • Speedboat (1976) by Renata Adler
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) by James Baldwin
  • The Berlin Stories (1945) by Christopher Isherwood
  • Poetry of Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens

Just as she was influenced by these writers and others, so too has Didion influenced writers of my generation. Indeed, I read my first Didion novel, The Book of Common Prayer, the summer I graduated from Mount Holyoke–and then went on to devour everything she has ever published. If any of my own fiction or essays resonate at all with readers, it is thanks to her.

If you haven’t yet had occasion to read her work or only know her more recent books (she is well into her eighties now and rather frail), the best place to start would be with her brilliant series of essays, Slouching Into Bethelehem, or the novel Democracy, both of which are readily available from your local library or independent bookstore.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sandi Sonnenfeld
Founder & Managing Editor
The Lyon Review