Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

dune_cover

DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

asimov

Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

Broca

Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

purple-cow

Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

Elements_of_Style_cover

The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

Onward creative spirits

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Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.Henry V III, i, 1

In his thrilling speech to his troops (see excerpt below), who stood exhausted before the walls of Harfleur, Henry V challenges them to try yet again to take the city, that now is not the time to back off. Keep moving forward.

As it was expressed dramatically about war, so it is with Art and with life itself. It is vital that once you gain some momentum, you should do everything in your power to maintain that momentum.

Several years ago, I took up running. I hated it. I hated every living moment of it. But I was trying to improve my health and I knew that it was important. And so every couple days, when I would head out for my run, I had but one thought in my mind: keep moving forward. I knew that if I stopped, I might never run again.

As it was with running, so it is with writing. I write because I desire to, but also because I fear that if I stop, there is every chance that other aspects of life will creep in and keep me from it. My fear of losing writing is bigger than my fear of writing crap.

If I’m working on a screenplay and hit a creative sticking point, I try to move around it rather than dwell on it and lose the forward momentum. Sometimes, moving around it means writing another scene elsewhere in the same screenplay, but more often, it means jumping to another screenwriting project, developing another blog post or riffing wildly on Twitter or Facebook. My poor keyboard owes me nothing.

Even when I am simply writing some notes for a scene yet to be written, I do not allow the “correct” word choice to block me from writing…I simply add a placeholder where the right word should be and keep the thoughts flowing onto the page. The placeholder can be a blank underline (fill it in later) or a close enough word so I will know what I meant later, or it can be the word “shit”. It doesn’t matter.

It’s the artistic version of Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force. An object in motion remains in motion, and at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

In this case, the object in question is me and/or my creative spirit.

In fact, forward movement doesn’t even have to be the same art form. I often use photography to keep me going. But you can also read a book, see a movie, sit in a park. Do whatever it takes to keep the creative parts of your brain and soul moving forward.

But how will I ever get anything done if I keep flitting back and forth from distraction to distraction?

Unless you’re specifically working to a deadline for your creative project—and there will be times when this is true—creativity is about the process, not the product.

Most artists (and we are all artists) live and act to create, not to have created.

And even if you are working to deadline, forcing your way through a challenge will likely result in a work that requires significantly more reworking than if you had simply let the creative spirit take you where it would. Thus, I don’t know that you’ve really gained much by pushing on something that isn’t coming naturally.

The natural direction of the universe is forward. You have it in you to continually move forward. Why would you give that up?

 

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height.
– Henry V III, i, 3-17

(Image used without permission.)