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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
Outside Influencesby Virginia Euwer Wolff
I think I've managed to identify four distinct sources, even though they change shape and burrow nimbly into the confluence of ideas on the page, marking their territory so furtively that I usually don't catch on in time to see them clearly.
The four seem to be a song, two plays, and a short story.
First, the song and where I learned it. My brother and I spent our childhood in the woods. It was a dreadful, horrifying time in much of the world, but not in our small nest of Douglas fir, Western red cedar, apple and pear orchard, Sunday school, grandparents, summers in tall grass and winters in deep snow, a gas shortage, and rationing for some war going on somewhere way far away that made the grownups cry.
We lived in a large log house that our lawyer-turned-farmer father had built in the days before the chainsaw. It had five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a grand piano, a massive stone fireplace, huge beams, and books and art in every room. A lodge-like house. But no electricity.
After clearing the land, planting the orchard, building the house and barn, and surviving the Great Depression, our father died suddenly one winter night when we were small, leaving us to learn about loss before we even knew its name.
Our mother was an accomplished pianist, and between Beethoven and Rachmaninoff and Bach and Chopin, she taught us this song:
The north wind doth blow,
(My mother had no idea that her daughter would turn out to be a writer, but she would not let me go through a day of my childhood without music.)
The association of the little bird shivering in the cold appears in every book I've written. But it is never a bird. Only recently did I catch this figure in my fiction.
Not much more than a decade after the cold robin, I had such a serious case of adolescence that my mother could scarcely tolerate being in the same room with me. In one of her tireless series of attempts to cure me of it, she decided, just before I would begin college, that she and I should lock ourselves inside the family car and drive 10 hours together in scorching August heat to Ashland, Oregon, for its Shakespeare Festival.
On a balmy summer evening, in a stage storm of wind, rain, thunder, and a lot of blueish lightning, King Lear, my very first King Lear, who had banished those who truly loved him and had been discarded by those he thought loved him his Fool was the only one who had not abandoned him this Lear looked into the raging weather and he commented on Man: "Is Man no more than this? Consider him well....Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal...."
Something happened. Into what had appeared to be the vacuum of my mind, King Lear and his Fool tumbled, trembling, windblown, and nearly naked.
Shakespeare had found language for the agony of living with one's own mistakes. There were words for finding yourself isolated with your failures. Phrases for discovering that you were wrong, all, all wrong, wrong, wrong.
Looking back, I know my consciousness made a kind of quantum leap that night toward finding some kind of language of my own. Another 30 years would go by before I would actually begin to write a book for young readers.
Why the long wait? I've tried for years to figure it out. For one thing, we teens knew it was a social sin to "take ourselves too seriously." But we knew, too, that that was what we were supposed to be doing. Wasn't that what our parents and financial aid offices were paying all that tuition for? And how seriously was "too"? Caught in this consuming oscillation, we postwar kids had the luxury of constantly revising ourselves.
For one evening, anyway, I had taken King Lear, his Fool, and myself with unrestrained seriousness.
That's the first of the two plays.
Next, the short story. In college, I met Nicolai Gogol's The Overcoat. Gogol finished this story in 1841, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. Its fusion of comedy and pathos was perfect for my adolescence. Freezing cold winter in St. Petersburg, the poignantly poiseless Akaky Akakievich, and the overcoat that he owns for just a few hours: they made their way into me as few other stories were doing. I thought I had a kind of private ownership of Akaky Akakievich, but Marcel Marceau had discovered him, too. A couple of years later, I saw him pantomime the story in New York. Not only has Gogol remained one of my favorite authors for his hilarity and his gloom but in some of my more morose moments, I've wondered if everything I write is simply an ungainly attempt to make a kind of companion piece for his "Overcoat."
And now the second play. It was after college, and I was living in New York, and I saw Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Actors sat on stools and read from scripts. And I had an internal power surge: "I want to do that! Write for people to read from scripts, sitting on stools!"
It had the fervor of a sudden impulse to become a nun or an astronaut. It lasted one afternoon before several necessary decades intervened. I reared children, I taught school. Pirandello and those actors on stools seemed to have disappeared.
But 31 years later and 3000 miles away from New York, one day I began to write a story in funny-shaped lines about a 14-year-old babysitter. And within a few weeks, the actors sitting on stools rose up to consciousness, and I realized that I was making good on my old and passionate drive to write readers' theatre.
That book was Make Lemonade, written in what I hoped were natural breathing spaces, little recesses of thought. Its sequel was True Believer. And now, after much too long a time, I've completed the last volume in the trilogy, This Full House.
The robin is still shivering in the doorway of our log barn, where I imagined him in my childhood. King Lear still finds himself without majesty in the maelstrom of his own mistakes, and it is no joke. Akaky Akakievich keeps trying to retrieve his lost overcoat in the Russian winter. And every once in a while I hear of staged readings of something I've written and I get grateful to Pirandello all over again.
Hundreds of books, plays, poems, essays, movies, and miles and miles of music have been welcome guests in my life, and many have moved in with me. But I can't think of another work that has had the stubborn tenacity of those four, whose heartbeats assert themselves under my fingers when I least expect them.
I have two favorite literary remarks these days. First from Alfred Kazin about writing: "...language, always failing and stumbling, breaking the writer's heart with its mere approximateness to the thing in his mind...."
And from Anatole Broyard about reading: "A good book is never finished. It goes on whispering to you from the wall."
And we go on: reading, writing, absorbing, knowing it all braids together into something rich and strange, and we watch the shifting design to try to figure out how.
÷ ÷ ÷
Virginia Euwer Wolff is the distinguished author of six books for young readers. Her books have won the National Book Award, the Michael L. Printz Honor, the Golden Kite Award, the International Reading Association Children's Book Award, the Jane Addams Book Award, the PEN-West Book Award, and the Oregon Book Award, among many other honors. Virginia Euwer Wolff lives and works in Oregon City, Oregon.