A Short Compilation on Writers and Their Beginnings
I decided very early—my junior year of high school. We read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that year, and it had a big effect on me, for reasons that seem quite amusing to me now. I’m half Irish and half Greek—my mother’s family were Kentuckians, Southern hillbillies, and my paternal grandparents immigrants from Asia Minor—and, for that reason, I identified with Stephen Dedalus. Like me, he was bookish, good at academics, and possessed an “absurd name, an ancient Greek.” Joyce writes somewhere that Dedalus sees his name as an omen of his destiny, and I, at the dreamy age of sixteen, did as well. Eugenides was in The Waste Land. My Latin teacher pointed that out to me. The only reason I was given to these fantasies in the first place, of course, was that the power of Joyce’s language and the story of Stephen Dedalus refusing to become a priest in order to take up the mantle of art were so compelling to me. Dedalus wants to form the “uncreated conscience of his race.” That’s what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t really know what it meant. I do remember thinking, however, that to be a writer was the best thing a person could be. It seemed to promise maximum alertness to life. It seemed holy to me, and almost religious.
I went about it very methodically. I chose Brown largely in order to study with John Hawkes, whose work I admired. I entered the honors program in English, which forced me to study the entire English tradition, beginning with Beowulf. I felt that since I was going to try to add to the tradition, I had better know something about it.
Well, an inability to do anything else, among other things. I first started reading it seriously when I was in the Army, in Verona, Italy, and I was 23 years old, which is very late for a poet — most poets start about the age of 3, I’ve come to find out. And they have a whole stack of poems that they wrote before kindergarten. But that was not my case.
I did try to write stories in college, because I was interested in writing, and I was interested in the sound of language, but I was just no good at narrative and at fiction. When I discovered the lyric poem, that advanced not by narrative steps but by blocks and layers of imagery, I said, “Gee, I probably could do that. So let me try that.”
And that’s sort of what I’ve been doing, oh, for the last 50 years or so. And I feel very happy to have found it, because it’s obviously changed my life — and gave me something to do.
There was no single epiphany, but I recall a few early flashes. When I was ten I would be transported by certain books—Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novels, Isaac Asimov—and burn to do to readers what had just been done to me. Sometimes that burning prompted me to start writing, though I never got more than a few pages down. A few years later I would indulge in a visual fantasy that involved imagining my name on the jacket of a book—usually Faber and Faber—and I’d feel a whoosh inside my rib cage.
I was working on a radio documentary about welfare in Manitoba, specifically social assistance for single mothers, and I decided that the story I was telling would be better, truer, as a novel. I was always interested in literature, but not necessarily writing it. That came a little later.
After I saw the film [The Wizard of Oz], I went home and wrote a short story called “Over the Rainbow.” I was probably nine or ten. The story was about a boy walking down a sidewalk in Bombay and seeing the beginning of the rainbow, instead of the end—this shimmering thing arcing away from him. It had steps cut in it—usefully—rainbow-colored steps all the way up. He goes up over the rainbow and has fairy-tale adventures. He meets a talking Pianola at one point. The story has not survived. Probably just as well.
Émile François Zola, Self-portrait, 1902