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?