Life-Changing Books

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your own story?

Anyone here been on an Arvon course?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
There are moments in life when we chance upon a song, poem, film or book that chimes with something within us. Pithy quotes resonate—we remember them—they influence how we act. I've been collecting quotes, anecdotes, aphorisms and poems for twenty years, which I refer to for inspiration.

Sometimes a book, poem or song lyric can be life-changing. It might make us see things differently, or confirm what we were already thinking—an ego-boosting fillip that proves we're not alone in the world. How what we read affects what we write is hard to say, but as Pam Allyn of the International Literacy Agency said: "Reading Is Like Breathing In; Writing Is Like Breathing Out."

I grew up in the 1950s-1960s, a time of great social change with the rise of consumerism and the building of so-called New Towns within commuting distance of London; these were designed to take the capital's population overflow housing them in modern developments to replace WW2 bomb damaged buildings. My home town of Stevenage, Hertfordshire went from being a sleepy 6,000 in population, when I was born, to have tens of thousands of residents...currently 88,000.

I was a young naturalist, so loved The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which taught me some early lessons about conservation, how small is beautiful, the loyalty of friends and opposing property developers. It was galling to realise that I lived in a town that had expanded onto green spaces. The idyllic quality of life which Mole and Ratty sought in The Wind In The Willows eventually led me, after much wandering, to move to Cornwall.

My attitude towards opposing the destruction of the environment was cemented by reading Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.

I learned about the dark side of war by reading Lord Russell of Liverpool's books on Nazi and Japanese war crimes. The Scourge of the Swastika and The Knights of Bushido were harrowing reading matter for 10-year-old me, but they were formative in making me realise that fascism has to be opposed.

On a lighter note, a few years ago, a friend introduced me to the writing of Pema Chödrön. I've long had an interest in philosophy and her Buddhist beliefs matched what I'd been wondering about, particularly what she says about 'attachment' which hooks a person into a long-standing cycle of negative thinking. 'Start Where You Are' are ideal watchwords for any writer embarking on the telling of a story.

Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chödrön

I love poetry and recall being struck by the chilling forthrightness of Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse when I first read it as a teenager. It started me thinking that I shouldn't have children...and I never have.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin

More recently, I was delighted by the honest and sensual verse of Sharon Olds. She writes fearlessly about ageing, including making love. Her frankness and good humour affected my poetry and prose. Hard to dislike somebody who writes a poem called Celibate's Ode To Balls.

Celibate's Ode to Balls. - Free Online Library

Writing by our very own Agent Pete made me reconsider what I was eating. I read You Don't Need Meat in trepidation and it opened my eyes to a lot of issues I'd been ignoring about the food industry. I eat a lot more pulses, grains, fruit and vegetables these days. I could have done without the nightmare I had after reading the book, in which I was pursued through a forest by giant pork chops spitting apple sauce at me! I'd rather not think about the Freudian aspects of that....:oops: I certainly woke more terrified than turned on.

It's not just the books we read, but also the books we write that change our lives. Returning to creative writing in 2013 transformed my self-belief and I'm more optimistic about life. Whether my words will ever change a reader's life remains to be seen.

What books do you remember as influential from your childhood?

Has a book ever changed how you think about something?

What have you read recently that blew your mind?

How has being a writer changed your life?


Madeline L'Engle
What books do you remember as influential from your childhood?

It depends on what part of my childhood. I'll just pick an age.

D'aulaires Book of Greek Myths

A bound copy of a collection of Buck Rogers comic books. Quite racist.

Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm's Brother fairy tales.

Logan's Run

Victoria Holt novels

Has a book ever changed how you think about something?


What have you read recently that blew your mind?

Blew my mind .... I'm old. Or rather ... older.

The last piece of writing that blew my mind was something written by someone I know. I'm a fan. It's possible it blew me away because I know him. Except, he's a pretty good writer and I was not prepared at all to like his writing.

How has being a writer changed your life?

Not at all. I've never not been a writer. Or, are you asking me to do a sort of 'It's a Wonderful Life' thing and imagine not being a writer?

Well... the world would certainly be a much bleaker place ....

Just kidding.

I don't think being a writer changes people. Also, while thinking of the possible serious answers to this question, I'm tempted to say something fatuous like ... 'You're either a writer or you're not.'

But that's BS too isn't it?

I mean, there's a billion ways to be a writer.

But I can't remember a time when I wasn't thinking about writing... even if I wasn't in the midst of writing.
Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm for me too. When I was little, I picked up HCA's complete fairy tales at a Brownie Guides' jumble sale and treasured that book. It made me want to tell stories. In between those covers were worlds of escape and wonder, honest and timeless.

I still love fairy tales, folktales and myths because, at heart, most complex novels can be distilled to those basic recurring plots and themes. And that leads to my other life-changer, or eye-opener at least: Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces. His monomyth theory has received plenty of criticism over the years, but the pattern occurs over and over in stories old and new, without the writer necessarily being conscious of the theory.

And I'll just throw in this quote from Aeschylus' Agamemnon (tran. Alan Shapiro) because it's awesome:

Clytemnestra: You test me as if I were a witless woman; but I speak with undaunted heart to you who know, and it is all one, whether you praise or blame me.
Oh, and this, because it's so wistful and true. It's from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of the poems I revisit again and again:

“Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!”

And my other favourite poem, a poem to live by, Cavafy's Ithaca:

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
Paul it seems we come from similar times and places. I come from near Watford and was born in 1950.
In the early seventies I travelled around Australia and read a book by Like Rhinehart called The Dice Man.
For a time I lived by its code and had great fun and went to places I might otherwise have ignored.
For anyone who has not read it I can highly recomend it as it provokes alternative ways of making decisions whilst being hilariously funny.
Everything I read changes me, lol, but something that stuck in my mind every since school is one of John Donne's holy sonnets:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

and the last 2 lines:

One short sleep past death, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die.

I want it read at my funeral.

Speaking of reading things, I also made everyone at my 21st read a stanza of Tennyson's Lady of Shallott :)
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Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your own story?

Anyone here been on an Arvon course?