This is the fourth installment of a series written for the Writing Blog by Ryan Sheldon ’13
Class year: 2013
Favorite book: So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell
How do you identify as a writer? Do you think of yourself as particular kind of writer, and does that identification extend beyond your conception of yourself as a student?
I don’t especially identify as a writer. I think anyone can write (in the most basic sense of the word) but it takes a certain type of person to care about writing. If you care about the people, about the scenery of your life…if you are obsessed with the particular details of what goes on around you, then you can write something well-worth reading. To that end, it’s very hard to separate being a student from writing. What you’ve learned informs your writing. And that you have an urge to learn at all is what drives the desire to write and sift and self-reflect in the first place.
What, if anything, has influenced the way you’ve learned to write? What if anything, has influenced the way you like to write?
How I’ve learned to write and how I’ve come to write are inseparable concepts for me. The first few authors I really took to heart still cast long shadows in my mind. Li-Young Lee was the first poet I can remember being really on-board with. And in some ways, I’ve outgrown him: realizing that his latest two collections merely rehash images he’d worked with earlier in his career, noticing that his later books were much less focused… a series of underwhelming things like that. But by the same token, my work is still very narrative-driven and familial in a way that resembles LYL—not so much as an homage to the poet as much as a function of a thread that genuinely runs through my work.
My first formal writing teacher, Bill Lychack, unsurprisingly shaped my conception of what it is to write. One of his big aphorisms was that “we don’t choose what to write…it chooses us.” The man doesn’t lack credibility there; he spent about ten years with the same novella depicting a small span of his childhood. At any rate, the novella is The Wasp Eater. Fortunately for me, the author I idolized early on is no slouch…and so I haven’t had a destabilizing “kill your idols” phase in my life.
What is your preferred medium of literary expression (analytical writing, fiction, verse, creative nonfiction, blogging, tweeting, some admixture thereof…)? How would you describe your writing style?
I write a good deal of poetry and that’s where most of my self-training has taken place. I also enjoy piecing together fiction pieces. I think my poetic toolbox really overwhelms the fiction attempts, though; I tend to think of stories as being comprised of scenes (image-intensive and dialogue-starved) and spend a lot of time tweaking the sound of the sentences. It’s actually pretty frustrating to write a whole paragraph and re-read it only to realize that every four or five words are assonant. Then it’s back to the drawing board. I haven’t really wrapped my head around “plot” or “character development” either.
A few phrases that I think honestly describe my work: naturalistic, image-based, narrative-driven, homage-to-the-antiquated.
What is your background in reading? What sort of books do you read on a regular basis? Can you identify one or two books that loom large in the history of your personal development as a reader and/or a writer?
I learned to read in the first grade and I’ve been reading things ever since. I regularly read collections of poetry, novels, and collections of short stories.
I’ll mention a few large-looming works for me:
Fiction: So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell. You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe. The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter. Rhapsody of a Hermit, Michael Rothschild. The Architect of Flowers, Bill Lychack. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David Mitchell.
Poetry: Rose, Li-Young Lee. The Branch Will Not Break, James Wright. Bucolics, Maurice Manning. Radial Symmetry, Katherine Larson. The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill. Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, Galway Kinnell.
Has any particular kind of literature had a profound effect on the way you interpret the world? Have your academic interests or goals changed at all during the course of your undergraduate education as a result of something you’ve read (or written)?
I’d say that fiction and poetry have had a “profound effect on the way [I] interpret the world.” If you read something—anything—that resonates with you, that work inevitably helps to frame your outlook.
My academic goals have remained pretty constant.
What, if anything, do you hope to do with writing in the future?
I’ll continue to write.
What’s on your pleasure reading list semester? Are you looking forward to any book releases? If you feel the inclination, recommend a title that you’ve found particularly enjoyable or meaningful—what do you think we should be reading today?
I’ve been working through Milan Kundera’s Ignorance for the past little while. It’s not that the reading is work…it’s the finding time. The one release I’m keeping an eye out for is the victor of the Yale Younger Poets competition. Any of the aforementioned “large-looming” works are worth reading; they’ve had a definite impact on me.
And I think a prerequisite to writing is reading. There’s a Bellow quote that goes, “a writer is a reader moved to emulation.”—and I couldn’t agree more. I think there’s a responsibility for the writer to be aware of the conversation she’s entering into before she enters it. I once heard a Slammer say that he didn’t really read poetry, that he just liked to write it…and then he launched into some preachy thing about having purity in one’s own thoughts and not letting anything be influenced by the outside and/or outsiders. Needless to say, I wanted to strike him in the face. My stance on the matter couldn’t be much more opposite. I think it’s the complete submersion in the world that allows one to write something that stands up honestly as its own object in the world.
Stowell was selected as a Wesleyan Student Poet in the Fall of 2011 and has work forthcoming in The Claremont Review and The Tulane Review.