One of the topics I’m writing about in the book Writing Is My Drink is the importance of identifying your own aesthetic tribe, a small cluster of writers/artists whose voices inspire you, who’ve somehow given you permission to write and to write in your own voice. Sometimes in the early days of admiration, you may fear that you have copied their style too well. Emulation is just a stepping stone, however, and if you keep working, the inspiring voice will fade as your own becomes clearer.
Identifying the writers who’ve inspired us is a way of remembering who we are as writers. I’ve winnowed a much longer list down to a list of the ten writers who’ve inspired me the most. I’ve listed my “Tribe of 10” roughly in the order I discovered them, not a ranking. As you read through my 10, I encourage you to think of your own.
1. Woody Allen
I fell in love with first person in the 6th grade the year I read both The Happy Hooker and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But when I saw Annie Hall in high school, it was like the circuit of my brain lit up. The split screens, the use of subtitles, the first person clearly autobiographical narration, the flashbacks, the humor: I loved it. Completely.
2. Joan Didion
It was from the bookshelves of my college-era housemate, Tom, that I plucked Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Tom was the first exceedingly well read person I’d ever known who was close to my age, so when he nodded and said excitedly, “yes, yes, read that!” I did. What followed was my first case of writer envy. I was blown away by her ability to translate her times, to both be in a piece and not in a piece, her agility. All of it. A few summers later I had a Didion Summer in which I read everything of hers I could–fiction and non.
3. Alice Munro
Not only is she a remarkable storyteller, Munro is a Canadian (I’m a dual citizen and spent my growing up years in Canada) and, obviously, a woman. When I read Lives of Girls of Women, it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d read a book that I admired by someone I considered to be “like me.”
4. Nora Ephron
I read Heartburn and Crazy Salad in the mid-80’s. A woman owning the first person, owning her humor and her outrage. I love Nora. She’s a trailblazer.
5. James Baldwin
I’ll never forget where I was when I read “Sonny’s Blues” and the effect it had on me. I was sitting in the cafeteria at San Francisco State U in the late 80’s. I was sitting near a window and light was streaming through the eucalyptus trees that circled the building. I started reading the story and did not look up until I reached its final line. I was Sonny, I was the narrator. I was transported. I’d never read a story that hit me so hard. Since then, Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son has become a guidepost for me. Every time I go back to it, I’m inspired again.
6. Spalding Gray
I discovered Gray when I saw the movie Swimming to Cambodia. It was a similar experience to seeing Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I stumbled out of the dark theatre muttering, “I wanna do that. I wanna do that. Write like that.” Neurosis, first person, place, cultural commentary—all in his original Spalding voice.
7. Terry Tempest Williams
A few years ago, Utne Reader made a list of 100 Visionaries to Watch, and Terry was on the list, and I absolutely agree with that. I got to meet Terry and work with her for the last week of 1996, and the experience gave me some of the “permission” to write I’d been longing for. I love the conviction in Terry’s first person voice, both in person and on the page.
8. Anne Lamott
I read Bird by Bird right before I started my MFA. I love Lamott’s sense of humor and willingness to be vulnerable on the page.
9. David Shields
David was my first professor in graduate school. He modeled for me the process of identifying your own tribe of writers and the process of finding not only what you want to say but how you want to say it.
10. Lorrie Moore
I read Moore’s Self-Help my first year as an MFA student. It quickly became my favorite short story collection. Love her quirkiness, her first person, her second person, all of it.