Friday, April 28, 2006

Inapproprate Inspirations

image © 1939 MGM

Do you remember the dreaded college application essay? You needed to preen your knowledge with batted eyelashes, while seeming serious and scholarly. Oh, and fun. Because they wanted a well-rounded student as well, but preferably one who was also obsessed with something sufficiently esoteric and earnest.

My high school English class devoted a great deal of time to teaching us how to navigate the rocky shoals of this essay. We were the high achievers, and as such were expected to make a superior showing in the college sweepstakes, scaling Ivy walls and hugging our Seven Sisters.

One ubiquitous question that year was the old standard, "What book has affected your life most profoundly, and why?" This was not a difficult question for me to answer.

When I was nine years old, our class had a library period on Thursdays. We would troop down the hall to the tiny school library and select new books for the week. The library’s collection was intended to serve the whole population of the school, so it contained everything from board books for the wobbly kindergarteners to Beverly Cleary romance novels for the 8th graders on the verge of being teenagers. However, we were all supposed to remain on our own grade level. But I made friends with the librarian and was occasionally allowed to smuggle out a romance novel camouflaged by Little Women.

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a swelled head during this time because I could read more quickly than my classmates. In frustration, a group of them demanded that I read the thickest book in the library. I followed the pointed fingers.

Gone with the Wind.

Well, it was too late to back down now, so I agreed, secretly hoping the librarian would deny me the chance to check it out and allow me to save face.

No such luck. She merely winked at me and sent me on my way.

I got home, settled down with a bowl of cereal, and began to read.

It took about a page for me to become completely engrossed. I spent the next four days in a dream, snatching paragraphs of the book whenever I could, reading in the closet, in the bathroom, on line walking back to class. I wasn’t only reading...I was living that book, gripped by the epic canvas and larger than life emotions, immersed in a world convulsed by war, by love, by hate, by passion. Finally I had found a book that matched my own dim vision of what I wanted from life--to feel and rage and love with my whole being. I fell in love with the antagonistic relationship that brewed between Scarlett and Rhett (I fell in love with Rhett, period. I tell TEG that I grew interested in him because he was "cynical and arrogant" just like Rhett). And I admired Scarlett immensely--seeing her flaws but forgiving them because she was so real--she wanted things, she chased them down. She was a dynamo. Scarlett made things happen.

When I finished the book, I put it down and went to the store for my mother in a haze. I felt bereft...all I wanted was to READ IT AGAIN. And so I did. After I was told to allow some of the other students to read it and stop checking it out every single week, I scrounged together my allowance and purchased my own copy, which I promptly read until it was in tatters. Then I bought it again, and my parents grew alarmed at my obsession. They hid the book from me. I moped and cried and carried on until they gave it back.

Thus, of course, I chose Gone With the Wind as the book that had changed my life...the book that had shaped my vision of men and women (for good and for ill), the book that ignited all of my nine year old passions for literature.

I was proud of that essay; I basked in the rare sensation that comes when you express EXACTLY what you were trying to say.

My English teacher handed it back. She had only written one comment.

"Inappropriate book choice?”

At first, I was puzzled. I had told the truth, after all. Then angry, "Obviously it was a good essay if that’s the only comment! And what does she mean by ‘inappropriate’?"

But before long, my inner Good Student piped up. She reminded me that Gone with the Wind doesn’t enjoy the literary reputation of, say, the Bible. Or Ulysses. I was flooded with embarrassment. The book which had changed my life wasn’t a Classic, wasn’t even considered a very good book. What did that say about me?

It turns out, my teacher was right, in a way. In college, I learned just how much I didn’t know about literature, how much I hadn’t read. I learned that my untrained enthusiasms were suspect and possibly indicative of a feeble intellect.

Sadly, that trend continued even while I was working at Big Publishing Houses. I tried to catch up, tried to cram classics I should have read as a child into my weekends, tried to sound smart.

But my rebellious enthusiasm betrayed me every time. I remember a colleague mocking my love for SARK’s work...even though we published her! She wasn’t Intellectual enough, and by extension, neither was I.

This has been my secret shame for too long--what I viewed as my propensity to enjoy "low art”--romance novels, soap operas, America’s Next Top Model. But what if you find unexpected inspiration in these scorned places? Love of a soap opera couple a few years ago lead me to show my writing to strangers for the first time--I wrote fan fiction celebrating them. Romance novels were the candy that got me through the hard, lonely slog of college literary criticism. America’s Next Top Model provides a humorous and visually appealing treat on a hard day. Aren’t these valuable gifts as well? A truly dreadful movie, Clash of the Titans, led me to Greek and Roman mythology. Should I have scorned that treasure because it came from an "inappropriate source”?

I’m learning that inspiration is a trickster, able to call to us in a million disparate voices...the voices of our whole soul, not only of our intellect. There is value in the odd, the crooked, the pulpy. Gone with the Wind led me to a life of passionate adoration of the written word, which yes, has contained many classics, as well as many romances, chick lit novels, and self-help books.

And it helped me win a bet with a bunch of other nine year olds.

Confess to me...what are your most secret, most cherished, inappropriate inspirations?

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Blogger Ally Bean said...

Peanuts. And Dr. Seuss. With a BA in English and a MA in communication it seems like I should find inspiration in deeper places. But I don't!

Maybe higher education was lost on me. :-)

6:09 PM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger deirdre said...

Alice Hoffman writes to my soul and takes me to the place words live. "Gone With the Wind" was the glory of 9th grade, along with "Wuthering Heights". I love slightly twisted shows: Northern Exposure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost. My greatest giggly pleasure is the "Outlander" series by Diana Gabaldon. I haven't read enough of the classics and too often literary references fly past me. I read to escape, to be transported, to find delight.

7:58 PM, April 28, 2006  
Anonymous F said...

What a great, honest entry as usual.
I have to confess that I lead a double life- analytical, scientific when I think people are looking. But when I set the numbers aside, a few things have inspired me to feel, to dream to be part of something beautiful and irrational when my life seems confined to theories and laws.

I'll never forget the first romance novel that I bought. I got it at a flea market second hand bookstore, and while the kindly old shop keeper wanted to chat about the merits of the author, I looked around suspiciously, as if the dusty shelves had eyes that judged me for buying something so crass.
And my beloved soaps, where would I be without them? Saner? Maybe, LOL. But probably a lot less happy.

Even in a confessional, hushed post like this I don't want to admit that I wish I could be like a soap character that I love.

It's a shame, that I often scourn these things when they've given me so much. They've given me love when there wasn't any in my life, they let me forget the day when I needed an escape. So thanks inappropriate inspirations.

8:31 PM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger Susannah said...

I love this post - and i think there's a lot to be said for the wonderful escapism of pop culture!

when i was a teenager i devoured books by Danielle Steel, James Herbert and Stephen King. i hated the classics i had to read for my exams, though i still got an A in English LIt without having finished any of the books!

today, my grief journey has been helped along with the charm of Charmed. that show has helped occupy my mind when all i could see was blackness, and triggered emotions when they needed to come out. strange but true...

5:01 AM, April 29, 2006  
Blogger Shari said...

Ah, inappropriate inspiration....I would have to say Blogging! I still get the sideways skeptical looks if I mention anything about talking with people on the I've just mentioned that I joined a cult. Come to think of it, it is kinda cultish in a way....but I won't go into that.

I'm ticked off at the teacher who wrote that comment on your paper. What the hell? Too many people are caught up in what is "right," what is expected, what is appropriate, as evidenced by your former colleagues. How could your teacher have missed the Truth behind your words? I guess she was more concerned about manipulating the process in order to achieve an end result instead of basking in the beauty of a simple glimpse of "genuine." And that is a sad commentary on today's world. Teach the test...forget will get you nowhere...except into the hearts and minds of other free-thinkers! Remember, those that belittle, tend to be little themselves. Did I just make that up? I think I might have just made that up. Oops, there I again.

6:13 AM, April 29, 2006  
Anonymous patti digh said...

i LOVED this post. i remember shocking colleagues on a business trip a few years ago when we all went into the airport newstand to buy magazines for the long plane trip--they told me afterwards that they all expected me to head straight for The Economist and the Financial Times and the Harvard Business Review. My choice? People magazine. I still am hesitant to admit it, but there's a tiny thrill in those airport shops everytime a new one appears (on Thursdays, in case you're wondering). I can't explain it. At a younger age, the inspiration was definitely Pippi Longstocking. Thanks for this great essay!

9:18 AM, April 29, 2006  
Blogger Jessie said...

One of my "secret" favorite authors is Natalie Goldberg. Academia doesn't seem to respect her quite as much as I do, but that's just too bad for them.

I've always felt like an outsider because I don't normally swoon over the classics. Generally speaking, they don't do much for me. I spent a lot more of my time drinking up contemporary authors. Anyway, there are plenty of other people that can talk smart about the classics. Life is short--I'd rather spend my time with things that light a fire under me.

This was a great post, btw.

12:47 PM, April 29, 2006  
Blogger Living Part Deux said...

This is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful story. I know the classics are beloved for many reasons, literary significance amont them, but my list of influential books in my life does not have many of the classics in sight. In fact, as I perused the list of 100 best novels, many more of my favorites were on the reader's list side than the board's side. I got through the first 30 and felt proud that I had read several; through the next 30, feeling proud that I had even HEARD of many of them; and I just skimmed through the remainder with a sense of resignation. I read Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West the same year - when I was in junior high. They both had a huge effect on my life, and expanded my thinking into places I had never been. Again, thanks for sharing; your thoughts launched me into memories of great books I have read through the years, and many I need to re-read.

3:33 PM, April 29, 2006  
Blogger K said...

Loved the post!

Diana Gabaldon, Judy Blume's Summer Sisters, and Instyle Magazine!

9:33 PM, April 29, 2006  
Blogger andrea said...

what a fantastic read this post was. I loved it and loved Gone with the wind. I adore all of the old classics and am a HUGE Jane Austin fan. On the flip side I, like yourself indulge in the occasional, "The devil wears Prada" type books.

Wonderful story you told.

9:26 AM, April 30, 2006  
Blogger megg said...

my girliest guilty pleasure is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon - sigh - mostly because of the lead male character! I am also a slightly ashamed reality tv nut. When I was younger I smuggled all of my Sark-type books into my room. Basically, I think I am a guilty reader no matter what - and loving it!!

3:23 PM, April 30, 2006  
Blogger Cate said...

I love this post. Love it. (Again, I think I write that for all of your posts).

Everything you say here resounds with me. I am STILL guilty of trying to force myself through classics or do other "high art" activities in order to seem more worldly or intelligent. Sometimes, I "ground" myself and realize that life is too short, and other times, I find myself consumed with thick books that swarm with long words and convoluted sentences. Thank you for this beautifully written reminder! By the way, I'm enraged that the teacher wrote inappropriate book selection, simply ENRAGED.

P.S. My biggest source of entertainment is currently reality TV, and I'm actually so "addicted" that I'm pretty vocal about it! You still watching "Top Model?" Who are you rooting for? I like both of the girls who had their teeth fixed! :)

8:10 AM, May 01, 2006  
Blogger Laini said...

I love this post! I was a complete lit snob in college, a Berkeley English major who worked in a bookstore and read only dead authors. I'm sure I was insufferable. But inevitably, I was lured by the living voices all around me and started to read new stuff too. I still remember the poet-chef at a restaurant where I waitressed poo-pooing Barbara Kingsolver as not a great Western writer. As if! I've so completely recovered from my snobbery by now in my 30s that I barely read classics, I've shunned academia (I learned to loathe writing those perfect A essays full of b.s.), and I love young adult novels and America's Next Top Model! I never miss it. At the bookstore I spend much more time in the YA section, and I only occasionally feel a twinge of self-consciousness, a need to explain, "I write for this age group." I've never read Gone With the Wind, but Les Miserables got me this way. However, I was about 16, not 9. You were very advanced!

10:49 AM, May 01, 2006  
Blogger Laini said...

Oh, and to chime in on Cate's question about ANTM:
I'm also rooting for Danielle and Joanie, the ones who got their teeth fixed. I was so glad Nnenna got the boot!

10:51 AM, May 01, 2006  
Blogger Mardougrrl said...

I loved reading all of your responses! I can't wait to explore all of these wonderfully inappropriate inspirations!

Ally bean: We're the mavericks of higher education...daring to find inspiration outside of official channels! Or so I tell myself. ;)

Deirdre: Oh, and here I thought Alice Hoffman was acceptable. I love her too! And I adored Buffy, until that confused last season.

F: loved your story about finding your first romance novel...I think the "forbidden" aspect probably made it more appealing too? No? ;)

Susannah: What you describe is it, exactly, for me...a sort of shock that emotions can be triggered so strongly by something so seemingly trivial. We bring so much of ourselves to everything, I suppose, even Buffy and Charmed.

Shari: I know what you mean about going online. I am truly an undercover blogger at the moment. Very few people in my RL know about this place. And ITA about "teaching to the test." Don't let a little thing like "life" get between you and the Plan--hate that attitude!

Patti: Thank you so much! You mean you AREN'T always reading "Harvard Business Review" for pleasure? Horrors! ;) US, People...look at the celebrities--they drink coffee and shop!

Jessie: What a great attitude! I need to take that one, if you don't mind. And you've inspired me to re-read Natalie Goldberg.

Rebekah: Thank you...I want to read about the's always interesting to see how much the books change because we change.

Kathleen: Ooh, I need to pick that Judy Blume book up. I love her! And thanks.

Andrea: Maybe someday "The Devil Wears Prada" will be a classic? Eh, probably not, but a mind needs more than Good for You. Thanks.

Megg: Maybe hiding the work we love from the world preserves that excitement we see in it? I never thought of it that way before.

Cate and Laini: Ooh, I am you and you are me and...ahem. Yes. Thank you. And as far as ANTM goes (LOVE that you both watch...that automatically makes it good in my book!)--I like those two as well, and Sara. Hate Jade and hated Gina. :)

3:46 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger jammie said...

When I was nine, we had a Library period too. And we had to write a book synopses. What memories!

I fell in love with "literature" at the time of reading Enid Blyton's Mr Galliano's Circus. Oh the secret dream to run away and join a circus away from my boring family - to be able to discover good in people and live in caravans and eat tuna out of can in the noamd way of life. I think books presented to me another option in life, one you could always take by going down to the tiny little libarary and picking out another title. To transport you.

4:10 PM, May 31, 2006  

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