Literary Life

My Holy Trinity

No, your faithful literary servant has not succumbed to the compelling compulsions of superstition. I refer to my personal literary holy trinity, the three writers who, each in a different way, transformed me as a writer. There are other literary saints in the pantheon, but these are the holy ones. These are they who made me.

Papa

Hemingway. Of course. The first writer I read (as soon as I could read big people’s books) who showed me the world I wanted to live in, the world I would grow up to live in, thanks to his open door. I have absorbed Hemingway and lived his stories for much of my life — my life in Europe, in Africa, fishing for big game, heavy drinking in dangerous ways and places. He showed me that I could be a writer if I desired it and worked at it, made myself good. He taught me to be judicious and careful and take art seriously, as seriously as religion, because he showed me that art is finer and more true than the dogmatisms of religion. Because of Hemingway, a boy from the pine forests of deep south Arkansas ventured into the world, traveled around it, wrote about it, lived in it, and loved in it. Hemingway is the father.

the Storyteller

John Irving. After I was a writer for a long time, I felt trapped in a mold of my own making, a paradigm I could not shift. I did not know the possible. The first time I read John Irving, I saw the possible, what could be done with plot and story-telling that I was too afraid to try on my own. Irving showed me how to do that. Even if after a time he began to himself write like John Irving, that’s all right; so did Hemingway. John Irving taught me how to stop fearing the story and its possibilities, how to stop fearing my own feelings of inadequacy. Irving showed me there are big stories that ought to be told in big ways and let the world be damned because you are there to tell them. He also took the time to tell a young writer to attack the barricades and be brave, for you are the voice on earth of the gods, you are a writer. Irving is the son.

America's finest living writer

James Salter. A writer cannot come to Salter too soon. He waits for your maturity. James Salter is, and I will not argue this, America’s finest living writer. From Hemingway, I learned how to be a writer; from Irving, I learned the possibilities of writing; from Salter, I learned the purity of writing. Salter could have only written “A Sport and a Pastime,” to have earned my unending gratitude, but there is “Solo Faces,” which showed me how to write about climbers, and allowed me to create my best work (so far), “Possessed by Shadows.” There is “Light Years,” which taught me depth of character and the honor in tragedy. His stories, which are like gems arrayed on a velvet cloth, are the model for all story-tellers. Salter showed me how to write one word at a time, one sentence before going on to the next, to be as fine as you can be before taking one more step. Salter is the holy ghost.

These are the men who taught me.

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9 replies »

  1. Damn, a lovely, lovely post. You are absolutely right about Salter, on all counts. He can ruin me with a sentence as easily as he can lift me up and make me more than I am.

  2. Like everybody else, I grew up reading a lot of Hemingway. Salter came much later on, when I hit early 20’s. He’s truly astonishing – I particularly admire his pacing. I haven’t read much of Irving though.

  3. Hem is truly the old master. I haven’t read enough Salter, and that Iriving character sure has a way with stories. Of course, he stole everything he knows from Dickens … 🙂