Let’s face it, we all got into writing because of something we read. Whether it was a children’s story, a 1000-word novel or even a thrilling piece of journalism, it was - generally speaking - someone else’s words that inspired us to become a writer.
For me, it was the children’s author Roald Dahl who first got me into writing. I was just 6 years old.
In this article, however, I’m going to skip my childhood and talk about the writers who have shaped what I am today. If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration yourself, grab yourself a coffee or beer and kick back as we take a look at some of the best craftsmen the world has ever seen.
Big words? You bet.
Otherwise known as the King of the Beats, Kerouac’s prose is among the most exciting I’ve read. I’ve come across a few ‘game changers’ in my time, and one of those was On The Road.
On The Road is Kerouac’s masterpiece. It’s a plotless, semi-autobiographical account of the aimless road trips he took with his friend, the frenetic real-life hipster Neal Cassady, who is immortalised in the novel as Dean Moriarty.
As well as wanting to be Dean, On The Road influenced me in so many other ways. One of them was my writing. In the novel, Kerouac says “to be a great writer you have to write with all the energy of a Benzedrine addict.”
Kerouac wrote fast. He wrote with fire, passion and a lust for life. He got the words down as quickly as he could and edited it all later. And it’s his passion for life and writing, as well as his speed and his ‘spontaneous prose’ (writing off-the-cuff, unedited, pure) that fired me.
I read Miller’s masterpiece Tropic of Cancer a year before I read anything by Kerouac. Tropic of Cancer is, like Kerouac’s work, a plotless semi-autobiographical account of a particularly freewheeling period in the writer’s life.
Miller, then, isn’t a writer you turn to when you want a bit of plot. He doesn’t do drama. He doesn’t do twists and turns. Tropic of Cancer is a recording of the events - some fascinating, others mundane - that happened to him in Paris as he turned forty. But it’s the way he writes about these events that make him, in my opinion, the greatest writer that ever lived.
Note, not the greatest novelist but the greatest writer. Some of the things that happened to him were definitely mundane. But he makes it art by writing about it so poetically.
Miller had a gift. He was a poet who wrote beautifully. If you want to know what it’s like to read a novel without any real plot, and whether or not you would be bored by such a thing, read Tropic of Cancer. He reveals the mysteries of life, love, sex and death. He speaks to you. He captivates with his words. He owns language.
What Miller really taught me, though, was that to be a great writer who motivates people to change their own lives, one should love life.
And, boy, was Miller in love with life. In Tropic of Cancer, he barely has enough money to buy a beer most of the time. But he finds joy in everyday life. Waking up to a woman ‘is a miracle’ for him. This lust for life, this appreciation for liberty and the small things pours out in his writing and make Tropic of Cancer what it is.
Fuck Dickens and his Bleak House.
(I am kidding)
Where do you start with Nabokov?
I started - as many of us did - with Lolita.
I hated it. I often find myself disliking anything that’s been hyped beyond words, and this was the case with Lolita. It’s supposed to be his masterpiece. But it’s not a patch on Pale Fire.
Pale Fire finds Nabokov at his most breathtaking. It’s a Herculean effort on the part of the writer, a piece of art to rival the Sistine Chapel. Some readers find themselves frustrated by Nabokov’s glittering prose and over-the-top wordplay, and perhaps some might think he’s just showing off. But he’s a master, this is a novel to cherish and it seems a bit uncultured - and wildly unfair - to criticise a writer just because their language makes you dizzy. He takes no prisoners, he doesn’t water down his language. Instead, he takes things up a notch.
With Pale Fire - and his other novels - Nabokov (who often wrote in English despite it not being his first language) pushed writing to new heights. His achievements are astounding and breathtaking. If you want to read anything by a real writer’s writer, you could do a lot worse than read Pale Fire.
Be careful - it really might leave you bewildered.
By March 2016, I surely thought I’d seen it all when it came to novelists and writers. Surely nothing I read at this point could excite and move me anymore? After all, I’d tackled Beckett for crying out loud.
I was wrong. Miller had taught me that you could still excite readers without a plot, Kerouac had taught me to be a hurricane of energy, but it was Vonnegut who taught me the power of imagination - and the repeated refrain, with his novel Slaughterhouse 5.
It’s a simple literary device, but by repeating ‘and so it goes …’ multiple times throughout the novel (usually after someone dies, I think), Vonnegut creates a moving piece of humanism that cuts deep.
Vonnegut is a wonderful writer. He doesn’t write with the unabashed energy of a fried Kerouac or with the lustful libido of a starving but triumphant Miller. But what he writes is - to him - truth. He combines his powerful imagination with situations we can all relate to and gets as near to the truth as is probably possible.
Bukowski - otherwise known by his alter ego Henry Chinaski in his novels - was a writer. He was also an alcoholic, a gambler and a womaniser.
I’m not sure which vocation he would put first when introducing himself to people:
“Hi, I’m Charles, the writer.”
“Hi, I’m Charles, the womaniser.”
“Where’s the beer?”
The remarkable thing about Bukowski is that he - or so he claims anyway - was hungover 95% of the year. Each year.
And yet he still wrote some of the finest prose and poetry that has ever come out of America.
Now, these words will seem ridiculous to some. See, Bukowski wasn’t a writer’s writer in the vein of, say, Nabokov. He also didn’t care much for plot. He wrote about the ‘basic realities’ of life. His first novel was called Post Office and it’s - quite literally - about his dreary life working for the American mail force.
Not a lot happens in a Bukowski story. He drinks. He fucks. He gambles. More often than not, he loses.
But Bukowski didn’t give a fuck. You hear that? He didn’t give one fuck about anything and anyone.
Except his writing.
There’s a special art to Bukowski’s way of writing. It’s not wholly unique. But - like Vonnegut - it speaks truth. He says it like it is. He’s economical with his words and he says only what needs to be said. Then, he moves on.
Bukowski’s fearless, uncompromising attitude in life comes across in the way he writes. There’s absolutely nothing over the top about it. Where Nabokov took 5 pages to make a point, Bukowski would make the same point in a sentence. He would shrug if you questioned him about it and swig his beer.
He stripped writing of all its pretences. He was direct and honest. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t like it. And he was okay with that.
Many of us - me included - found it utterly absorbing.