“’We’d like you to give our students some tips that will make them better writers,’ he said.
Tips! The ugly little word hung in the air, exuding its aroma of illicit information. Bookies live on tips delivered, horseplayers on tips received, investors on stock tips, preferably hot, and taxpayers on tips about how to evade the tax code. College-bound students pay for tips on how to pass the SAT test.
The tip is presumed to be based on inside knowledge, giving its recipient an edge in outwitting life’s cruel odds, and never has the tip-dispensing industry been so alive and well, plying us in magazines and books and on television programs with maxims of salvation. …
‘I don’t do tips,’ I told the man calling from the school’s English department. It’s not that I don’t have any; On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips. But that’s not the point of the book. It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer”
Artists are always seeking inspiration. To seek is to find, and they find it in the way the sun reflects off a lake at dawn, the sounds of nature or someone else’s turn of phrase. But immediate inspirations are one thing; and to make something meaningful out of them, the true artist builds them on a basis of a long-term philosophy.
As a storyteller, I find inspiration in things that make me look in a new way at something that’s familiar or mundane. If it makes me laugh, too, that’s even better. As a playwright, I am inspired by many writers: Horton Foote for the way he tells meaningful stories that are quiet and powerful, and Moss Hart for the heart around which he builds all his work and George S. Kaufman, for his way with a one-liner. Kaufman and Hart collaborated on, among others, “You Can’t Take it with You,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and has always been one of my favorites. It makes you laugh, it makes you think and it makes you want to be a better person. We should all aspire to reach that bar.
I talked to three artists about the books that have guided them on their creative journeys. Here’s what they had to say:
“Much like everyone who lives through their 20s, I felt I was going in the right path in education and was in the middle of earning an advertising design degree. I was a freelance graphic artist picking up jobs and I thought this was my only life. Then I took a required painting course at Wayne State University and an Instructor suggested ‘The Art Spirit,’ by Robert Henri.
This book mirrored every thought I had about art and life. I could not get enough of this guy and on each page it validated exactly what I felt was right with who I was and how I was going to let art be what my life would be about.
“I re-read the book several times until it became my mantra. When I reflect on the words in the book, I imagine I’m in one of Robert Henri’s lectures or, while I’m working on a painting, he is right over my shoulder guiding my hand. I’ve given copies of the book to choice students in hopes they pick up the torch and find the same aesthetic direction and peace it gave me.
“To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘There are two dates in your life that are important. First, it’s your Birthday. Second, it’s when you realize why you are here!’”
James Pujdowski is a longstanding member of the Michigan art scene. His expressive landscapes and still lifes are drawn from direct observation from his travels around the country and benefit from his imagination and love of vibrant color. His work can be found in public and private collections across the country, and he is in much demand as an art show jurist. James is also a teacher at a private school in Grosse Pointe Woods and at art centers, colleges and universities.
“I’d been taking notes in the back of a book called ‘Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words’ and a woman asked, ‘What do you do?’ We were at a funeral repast talking about the homily, one of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in any church, any service. ‘I do words,’ I told her. And there is no one way I do them—I read dictionaries, stylebooks, and English books.
“Writers are the custodians of memory.”
~ William Zinsser, “On Writing Well”
But as a satirist, I refer to five books constantly to ensure I’m doing my best, most honest work when making observations of humanity: ‘Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition,’ for mechanics; ‘Beating Around the Bush,’ by Art Buchwald, to make sure I’m on point satirically; ‘On Writing Well,’ by William Zinsser, for the vision that informs my body of work; ‘A Handbook to Literature,’ by C. Hugh Holman, for technical terms, and ‘The Best of Simple,’ Langston Hughes, for my common-man voice.
Oneita Jackson is a Detroit cab driver who studied English at Howard University. She was a Detroit Free Press copy editor for 11 years and wrote a column called “O Street,” which received a Free Press Columnist of the Year award in 2008. Her latest writing project is the “Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome,” observations of a cab driver in awkward situations. Find her on Facebook at Oneita Cab Driver.
“I love German author Herman Hesse. He has so many great books. ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ is great, and ‘Steppenwolf’ is, too, but my favorite is ‘Siddhartha.’ It’s all about the spiritual growth of a man and I find that so inspiring and motivating. He really understands the multiple nature of good and bad in each of us. He explores the many different aspects of people and uses really cool imagery.
I read this at the same time I was getting into yoga, right about the time I read Gandhi’s book and the works of Rudolph Steiner. Still, ‘Siddhartha’ really gets right to the heart of the themes of personal enlightenment that interest me so much. Stories like this are important to me because I view life as a spiritual journey and I’m always intrigued by how people can have different beliefs and ideologies and achieve growth and enlightenment from different paths.
“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”
~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Chris Emmerson has been a fixture on Detroit’s rock scene for more than 10 years, playing at many of the city’s most popular venues. He started playing guitar at the age of four and started his first band in the fourth grade. Gigs with his father led him to a career as a professional musician. He released his first album, “It’s So Easy from Far Away,” in 2014, playing guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and percussion in addition to laying down all the vocal tracks. His second album, which tends toward the pop rock genre, is due out this year. In addition, he’s also a popular yoga instructor. His work can be found at chrisemmerson.com.
Ron Bernas, who compiled this post, is a freelance writer, editor and former reporter. He is the author of the screwball comedy-inspired play “A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody,” which has been performed around the world. He reads nonstop and is the author of Ron’s Bookshelf, a blog about books and reading at ronsbookshelf.wordpress.com.
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