A while ago, I was asked to write something about writers who inspired me, or something like that. Mentors, maybe? And these two are, even though I’ve never met them. The cover of Lee’s book is regrettable, but what can you do?
Many years ago, my father loaned me his copy of Cider with Rosie, the first part of an autobiographical trilogy written by English author Laurie Lee. I never gave it back. Lee’s words jump off the page like a lively grasshopper, engaging the imagination and appealing to the eye, the nose and the taste buds. His memories of the village where he grew up are alive with the buzz of insects, the melody of birdsong and the juiciness of life, each description bursting like a ripe berry. Every page is a beautiful portrait, lovingly drawn by a gifted storyteller. The reader travels the dusty roads of Lee’s remote Cotswold village as the seasons change and the years go by. And what happens between Laurie and Rosie…well, it’s about as exciting a description of boy gets girl as you will ever see.
Lee’s memoir went far beyond the traditional boundaries of truthful storytelling, if that is not an oxymoron. A description of creative non-fiction ought to include a paragraph from anywhere in this book. I read Lee years before I tried telling my own stories; today, his writing— appealing to all the senses —inspires me to reach deep into the everyday and seek the juicy parts.
Another inspiration is Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, written by world-class wordsmith Anne Fadiman. Not to stray into “too much information” territory, but I often read in bed and am not, generally, prone to laughing out loud while I read. However, this book of personal essays caused me to wipe away tears of laughter while causing Richter-level temblors that shook my husband awake on more than one occasion. Fadiman comes from a long line of compulsive proofreaders (“captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies”) who correct menus and library books. Her ability to take the most ordinary of human actions (the chapter on reading mail- order catalogs still makes me chuckle just to think about) and render them laugh-out-loud funny blew me away. She pokes fun at herself while using a vocabulary that sent me on late-night dictionary digressions. Her love and knowledge of words (and in particular the sesquipedalian – “which looks as if it means ‘long word’ and, in fact, does”) comes across on every page. Word play becomes high, humorous art in her skillful hands. I couldn’t put this book down, and read it again when I finished.
Ex Libris showed me that a well-written personal essay could be funny, touching, instructive, self-deprecating and thoughtful. Anne Fadiman will always be a front-runner in the field; I’m not even sure if there is a close second when it comes to cataloging the collision of humor and human foibles with such elegance and finesse.
Both Laurie and Fadiman moved me in unexpected ways. Even though I read both of them years ago, they remain on my mind every time I start to write: a constant reminder that the power and majesty of words — the right words—can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.