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The World is Made of Words: 5 Books that Shaped Me

The earth is made of matter but the world is made of words.

Sekou Sundiath “Amman”

As like most writers I read compulsively. I carry a book with me everywhere, getting in a few words here and there whenever I’m forced to wait – I live in Atlanta so I wait a lot.

It’s a habit from childhood. I had a rough span of years in late elementary school and junior high. Instead of opening myself up to ridicule from class bullies I tucked myself away in other worlds, real or imagined, during recess or lunch periods. Books became my shield. I learned if I focused hard enough on the words in front of me the words flung at me don’t register.

The following books are just five of the most influential in my life so far.

1: The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

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After 15 years of designing more than 1,500 book jackets at Knopf for such authors as Anne Rice and Michael Crichton, Kidd has crafted an affecting an entertaining novel set at a state university in the late 1950s that is both slap-happily funny and heartbreakingly sad. The Cheese Monkeys is a college novel that takes place over a tightly written two semesters. The book is set in the late 1950s at State U, where the young narrator, has decided to major in art, much to his parents’ dismay. It is an autobiographical, coming-of-age novel which tells universally appealing stories of maturity, finding a calling in life, and being inspired by a loving, demanding, and highly eccentric teacher.

I was a sophomore in high school when a classmate recommended this book to me. It was the early 2000s and Photoshop had just come out with version CS, abandoning the conventional numbered versioning. I was still working in an off-brand program called JASC Paint Shop Pro. My dad’s roommate had bootlegged it for me when he saw how much I enjoyed making CD labels for all my mixes (lord I am dating myself) and the world of graphic design just opened right up to me.

I became involved in a lot of challenge blogs – Blend Challenges, Colorization challenges; My username was instiable_jrt. Ah to be 16 again. – and took first place in a lot of these contests. Chip Kidd’s book came to me at a time when I was just starting to figure out who I was as a person and was beginning to think about what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. The one-two punch of Kidd’s novel and my small successes with my own graphics led me to pursue design in higher education, first at the community college level and then on to four-year university.

Colorization Award
Best Blend Award

 

I attended Savannah College of Art and Design for my bachelor’s degree, which, not to brag, but it’s one of the better design schools in the country. While there was no Himillsy Dodd or Winter Sorbeck in my college experience, the pressure to create something unique among a class of 15 or so who are tasked with the same objective was very much a part of my experience. None of my professors were as harsh or had the same unorthodox teaching methods but critiques were harsh and if you missed the mark you knew it. In many ways, this book prepared me for art school in a way nothing else could have. Every project I turned in I expected a Winter Sorbeck-esque critique and I prepared myself for it. So I was always pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t deemed absolute garbage or, as Sorbeck did with one poor student’s work, set on fire.

Because of the Cheese Monkeys, I knew what career I wanted to pursue at age 15 and now at 30, having done print work for major retailers like Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s, am climbing the corporate ladder in my field. I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing had I not read this book at such a pivotal point in my life.

Sidenote: I met Chip Kidd when he did a speaking event at SCAD while I was a student and let me tell you it was practically a religious experience. He signed both my novels (he has a sequel to The Cheese Monkeys called The Learners which is also great) and I was so overwhelmed and star-struck I didn’t have the chance to tell him that his book was responsible for my attendance at SCAD and my career choice. If you’re interested in hearing this brilliant man speak, check out his TED talk below.

 

2: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

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Palahniuk’s fashion-model protagonist has it all—boyfriend, career, loyal best friend—until an accident destroys her face, her ability to speak, and her self-esteem. She goes from being the beautiful center of attention to being an invisible monster, so hideous that no one will acknowledge that she exists. Enter Brandy Alexander, Queen Supreme, one operation away from becoming a bonafide woman, who will teach her that reinventing yourself means erasing your past and making up something better.

Chuck Palahniuk got me through high school. Like most teens, I felt misunderstood and was prone to bouts of melancholy. Palahniuk was the first author I came across that made no effort to give his characters a happy ending. His books were dark and twisty and I felt akin to them because, in my teenage angst, I too was dark and twisty.

Invisible Monsters is my favorite of Palahniuk’s books because it came to me at a time when I felt ugly and uncomfortable in my own skin. The narrator’s acceptance of her new deformity and her understanding that she no longer received certain perks reserved only for the beautiful resonated with me in a way that all of the “everyone is beautiful” teen magazine campaigns couldn’t. It felt more honest to me, and in a way helped me accept who I was and brush off my own insecurities. I mean if a former model who’s missing the bottom half of her face can find acceptance for herself, in the end, this chubby little emo teen could too.

 

3: Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Set against the looming horrors of the battlefield-weary, demoralized men marching in the rain during the German attack on Caporetto; the profound struggle between loyalty and desertion-this gripping, semiautobiographical work captures the harsh realities of war and the pain of lovers caught in its inexorable sweep.

My step-father died when I was 20. He’d been sick for a very long time and as a self-involved teenager, I didn’t realize how sick he was until suddenly he was gone.

I was at work when my grandmother called me to tell me he was dead.Grief is a very strange thing. It makes even the most irrational ideas seem like the perfect solution to the disorientation of loss. I left my office and went home and raked the entire front yard and half of the back because, when my mom got home, I wanted the yard to be nice. It had been a source of frustration and stress as my stepdad got sicker, my mom haveing to take care of the yard.

I had called everyone I knew on my way home from work but most didn’t answer so my rake-ing was interrupted frequently by many returned calls. I remember telling everyone “He didn’t get to finish his book. He was reading Farewell to Arms. He didn’t finish it.”

In my disorientation that was what I latched onto as the most horrifying part of the entire ordeal. I was obsessed. I wasn’t allowed to pester my mother so I had to space out the amount of times I asked her for his book, told her that I wanted to read from where he left off. It annoyed her and she always snapped at me “He didn’t get very far in it. You don’t need to do that.”

Her grief didn’t understand mine. Finally, she gave it to me and indeed, he’d only been about 12 pages in, so I decided I’d start from the beginning.

But later.

After all my urgency, it sat unread on my bedside table while I read other things and prepared to leave my tiny hometown for university 800 miles away. I took it with me to art school, a dream that had been my step-dad’s so it felt oddly appropriate.

When I finally started reading it was very slow going. I didn’t get Hemingway. I would register that something was supposed to be funny, but couldn’t figure out why. I read it on the bus to classes, during breaks, waiting for classrooms to empty of it’s previous occupants. For all the time, I spent with my face in it I can’t tell you a damn thing about it. My most vivid memory of reading it wasn’t even anything about the book itself.

I was sitting outside my Drawing II classroom waiting for the previous class to leave – they always ran over into our period – and the professor spotted the cover and made a comment about art school kids and the classics. Basically, he was implying that I was some kind of poser, trying to look smart by reading Hemingway, who I guess is only appropriate for old, crusty white guys like himself.

My grief, which had grown dormant in the six months since the funeral, roared to life and I will tell you, constant reader, it took everything in me not to close the cover on my bookmark – which is a copy of my step-father’s obituary – and beat that snotty professor across the face with my hardback.

Instead, I looked him straight in the face and in a voice I didn’t even recognize said, “This was the book my step-father was reading when he died six months ago. I’m finishing it for him. It’s taking me awhile and I don’t really like it. Or understand it. But I’m doing it for him. Because the thought of an unfinished book bothers me. I don’t know if it would have bothered him, but that’s why I’m reading it.”

The silence after I stopped speaking was deafening. I looked back down at my book and stared at the print, praying this idiot didn’t say anything else because by-god my blood was boiling so hot at that point I don’t think I could have stopped myself from bloodying his nose with Hemingway’s third novel. Luckily for both of us, he slinked away without a word.

 

4: Hannibal by Thomas Harris

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Seven years have passed since Dr. Lecter escaped from custody. And for seven years he’s been at large, free to savor the scents, the essences, of an unguarded world. But intruders have entered Dr. Lecter’s sanctuary, piercing his new identity, sensing the evil that surrounds him. For the multimillionaire, Hannibal left maimed, for a corrupt Italian policeman. and for FBI agent Clarice Starling, who once stood before Lecter and who has never been the same, the hunt for Hannibal Lecter has begun. All of them, in their separate ways, want to find Dr. Lecter. And all three will get their wish. But only one will live long enough to savor the reward.

Hannibal Lecter is the best fictional character ever written. #fightme I do not state definitives lightly so believe me when I tell you Hannibal is the real deal. Let me break it down for you.

I love (fictional) serial killers. Abhorrent behavior has always fascinated me and a serial killer is basically a blank canvas to throw your literary cause and effect onto. “Why does this guy stab people in the chest through the center of a doughnut? Well his father worked at a doughnut factory and always brought home fresh doughnuts before he beat the shit out of him and his mother. The smell makes him go crazy. That’s why he targets Krispy Kreme employees. The hot light is like a “COME AND KILL EM sign to this guy.”

Literally any ridiculous thing can be made plausible and LORD it has been. But Hannibal. *Sigh* Hannibal is refined and lethal and brilliant and oh so very sane… until he’s not. He finds joy in playing people like chess pieces and he is generally one step ahead of everyone. He induces a controlled chaos and stands back to watch every domino fall in exactly the place he anticipated.

A lot of writers try to do this with their serial killers. Their killers have a body count in the double digits and have eluded authorities for years. They have a special pet law enforcement officer that they toy with so viciously the other squad members worry about the toy’s sanity. They are touted as being one of the most brilliant criminal masterminds ever to walk the earth. It’s so terribly heavy handed.

But the way Thomas Harris writes Hannibal is quiet. Hannibal does not boast, he does not overplay his hand. His taunts are precision accurate to make the biggest impact. He gets in your head and undoes you from the inside out.

I have read every book, seen every movie and watched every TV show in relation to Hannibal Lecter and will continue to do so. #Stan

 

5: On Writing by Stephen King

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Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Speaking of #stanning…

When I say On Writing changed my life, I am not exaggerating. I’ve never actually read it, though I do have a hard copy on my desk tucked between Eats, Shoots & Leaves and The Elements of Style. I have listened to the audiobook probably about four times now. King reads it himself and I’ll never forget the first time I listened to it on a long roadtrip from Atlanta to my hometown in Southern Illinois.

I thoroughly enjoyed the memoir portion just from a voyeuristic perspective. How does one of the most successful and prolific authors describe his rise? With a frank humbleness that credits hard work and perseverance, which are traits that any writer can possess regardless of credentials, talent or experience.

But when King starts writing about what he calls “your writer’s tool box” YA’LL! I don’t wanna tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing, but I feel like this must have been what the disciples felt like hearing Jesus talk about loving thy neighbor and what not. It was all so terribly obvious, but still I’d never thought of or heard of it before. I would not be the writer I am today without Stephen King or this book and both continue to inspire me to push harder and grow in the craft.

 

What are some books that have shaped you? Comment below or @ me on Twitter @dianneinwriting

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