Chances are, you’ve probably already visited Vic’s blog. But if you haven’t, let me introduce you to a treasure where you’ll find no biggies like total babes Bill and Hillary Clinton, Albert Einstein wearing fuzzy slippers, Susan Sontag wearing a bear suit, the couch Freud’s patients used, Johnny Cash’s to-do list and Sylvia Plath’s copy of The Great Gatsby. No biggie too that Vic is a super writer and photographer (and she really is). And no biggie at all that she’s written a wonderfully honest contribution to My Favourite Book, which I love. Read on (but no biggie). Thank you Vic!
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
This is not my favourite book because it’s the best book I’ve ever read. That might be Lolita or Revolutionary Road, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby or those parts in A Farewell to Arms when Frederic’s floating down the river or when he’s rowing on the lake. This is my favourite book because of the impact it had on my creative life (which, actually, is really just my life life).
In 2006 I was working as a copywriter in an ad agency but I don’t think I could really write. I tried hard to write scripts, to write fiction, to write music reviews, travel articles. All of it. I’d read other people’s writing and I would think - yes! That’s writing! That’s how a writer writes! That’s how I’ll write! And then I’d write sentences in the voice of Franzen, of Salinger, of Plath, I’d adopt an accent or a style of another person or another time. But they weren’t real, they weren’t interesting, they certainly weren’t good because they weren’t mine.
Then I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG), Dave Eggers’ surprisingly funny, beautiful, gut wrenching memoir about raising his eight year old brother after the loss of both of his parents to cancer. And I realised something so stupidly, glaringly obvious.
I went back through my work and I re-read all the forced sentences I’d written. Sentences that, while factually accurate, were without a shred of truth. Because I wasn’t writing with the voice in my head. I was writing the way I was taught I should, I was writing the way I thought I should.
Eggers writes what’s in his head. He writes things that other writers don’t in ways other writers can’t. Even in his fiction when he’s writing in the voices of characters, he’s present in his prose. And this is because he writes the way he thinks. He writes the way he thinks! I remember sitting at my desk at a job I hated in a city I hated and saying that over and over. He writes the way he thinks! A revelation.
Now I force myself to remember this:
Don’t write the way you think you should. Write the way you think.
It’s the simplest thing. But only once I adopted it did I really write, did I really understand who I was as a writer, and now, much later, who I am as a photographer, as a creative person. As a person.
If anyone ever asks me for advice (they rarely ask), I tell them we all have a thing that is distinctly ours. It’s what sets us apart from everyone else. It’s what makes us interesting, it makes us us. It’s the way we see the world and it’s the most valuable thing we own.
AHWOSG is my favourite book not because it’s funny, beautiful and masterfully written (and it is all of those things) but because it gave me a sense of myself in my work. It taught me an invaluable lesson that I carry with me every day. So while this book and Eggers and his presence in every sentence won’t be to everyone’s taste, I’ll be an evangelist for them forever.
Image credit: Untitled by Sofia Ajram (used with permission). The girl’s tattoo in this photo is the final words from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.