A Writer’s First Loves: Betty, Nikki, & Langston

We’re always asking who a writer’s influences are. There’s something romantic about it.

Undoubtedly, Joyce Carol Oates has influenced many writers, but in her 2003 book, The Faith of a Writer, she tells us about the writers who influenced her early on in life. Among them are Louis Carroll and Robert Frost.

Oates opens this third section of her book by expressing this:

“There are two primary influences in a writer’s life: those influences that come so early in childhood, they seem to soak into the very marrow of our bones and to condition our interpretation of the universe thereafter; and those that come a little later, when we are old enough to exercise some control of our environment and our response to it, and have begun to be aware not only of the emotional power but the strategies of art.”

From this beautifully written passage, you can see how much fun I’m having exploring this book.

Oates describes the first time she fell in love with a piece of literature, Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass:

“Out of nowhere this marvel came to me, a farm child, in a work-oriented household in which there were very few books and very little time for reading. . . . [it] would be the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight! (Very likely, I fell in love with the phenomenon of Book, too . . .).

Like Alice, with whom I identified unquestionably, I plummeted headfirst down the rabbit hole and/or climbed boldly through the mirror into the looking-glass world and, in a manner of speaking, never entirely returned to ‘real’ life.”

I’m sure every writer relates to this feeling. We remember the first time that a poem or novel or story made you feel more alive, made you want to live, and changed our world forever.

For me, though I’d read stacks of classic YA fiction like The Babysitter’s Club (heart) and Sweet Valley Kids or Girl Talk, I didn’t know the true inspirational depth of literature until I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Like Oates and Alice, I identified almost completely with the protagonist.

My older sister had checked the book out from the library, probably required reading for school. It was in hardback with a missing dust cover, and I was struck by the vintage look of its faded green, woven textured cover and its brittle, yellowed pages. The book was two or three times thicker than any book I’d ever read, and the words were more densely packed on the pages.

At first, it began as a challenge to see if I could get through it and how quickly. The experience of reading it eventually grew into my ultimate enjoyment. Each day, I couldn’t wait to open it and delve into the story again. Viscerally moved, my soul perked up with each turn of the story and every epiphany of the narrator. For the first time in my life, a story made me cry.

Years later, as I’ve told my students countless times, I again fell deeply in love. I was a fourteen year old, high school freshman. In English class we read Nikki Giovanni’s “Kidnap Poem.”

This poem sparked my love for the English language and all the magic it can do.

I don’t remember the moment I discovered my passion for Langston Hughes, but it was later in my high school tenure. I desperately wanted to know him, to hear what he had to say about the daily happenings of the world, about the latest turns in politics, and all of the contemporary singers I obsessed about. But he had been dead decades by then, and so I read and read and read his poems and memoirs.

Not everyone who’s had these kinds of experiences grows up to be a writer, but I’d say every writer has had an experience like this.

What were yours?

The Runaway Writer

Writing can be frustrating. As a writer, you know it can.

You’ve written 70,000 words, but you only like eight of them.

You did what you were supposed to do and got your protagonist into a messy situation, but now you can’t get her out without resorting to the god of the machine.

You just realized that your entire premise was based on the fact that Pluto was a planet, and now you see the fatal error in your ways.

If you’re like I am right now, you’ve been sitting in the coffee shop for just three hours, and already your eyelids have anchors tied to them. (Curse you, afternoon wall!)

All of this makes you just want to get up from your desk or couch and get out, get away, run away.

That’s exactly what Joyce Carol Oates would do.

In her book of essays, The Faith of a Writer, Oates explains part of her relationship with running:

“The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon. On days when I can’t run. . . . the writing remains snarled in endless revisions.”

“Both running and writing are highly addictive activities; both are, for me, inextricably bound up with consciousness.”

“I find myself running in a place so intriguing to me, amid houses, or the backs of houses, so mysterious, I’m fated to write about these sights, to bring them to life (as it’s said) in fiction.”

“Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

So, if you’ve never been much of a runner, give it a try. Walk, bike, skip, or jump. Whatever motion or movement conjures your genii, do it often. Do it now.

How do you reenergize yourself for writing?

The Joyce Carol Oates Guide to Writing Your Heart Out


You can be a young writer at any age. It’s about how long you’ve been writing, or how much you’ve been writing.

I guess that’s why Joyce Carol Oates’s chapter, “To a Young Writer,” could help anyone, even non-writers.

The first line and the refrain is of course Write your heart out. But there’s more…

Now I present to you Oates’s advice in a much distilled version.

1. “never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject”

2. “your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art”

3. “don’t be discouraged!”

4. don’t compare yourself to others

5. “writing is not a race”

6. “the satisfaction is in the effort and rarely in the rewards”

7. there might not be any rewards

8. “read widely, and without apology”

9. “read what you want to read, not what someone tells you to”

10. “you may be trying to please someone who won’t be pleased , and who isn’t worth pleasing”

11. if you’re too afraid to “write your heart out,” use a pseudonym

12. use your real name if you want a professional career that involves teaching, lectures, readings, etc.

13. don’t expect to be treated justly or mercifully

14. don’t live life just to write about it

15. “give yourself up in admiration or adoration of another’s art”

16. “don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being a romantic and ‘yearning.’”

17. “the first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence has been written”

18. “only have faith”

Go forth and write your heart out.