Engineering majors don’t get a lot of choice in college electives. We take what we’re told and are lucky to graduate in 5-years. On the one occasion that I remember actually having an elective without restrictions, I chose to take a class in World Literature.
“We’ve never had an engineering major take an elective in World Literature,” chirped my adviser. The distinction was fine with me. I couldn’t imagine anything better than getting college credit to read and write about books.
The class progressed as any literature class might. We read Homer, Plautus, and the story of King David in the Bible, before we moved on to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Anthony Burgess. In some ways I was a bit disappointed because I had already read many of the selected titles in high school. The class redeemed itself only when I learned that we would be required to write an essay on a book of our choice for every book that we read and discussed in class. I liked that idea, as I had the freedom to roam the library.
However, when the time came to choose my self-selected titles, the demands of engineering school always compressed my efforts. To save myself the time of searching for an author with something to say, I simply looked up the names of Russian novelists and hastily pulled them down from the shelves one after the other. I figured that anyone who had lived in the last hundred years of Russian history had something to say. Their agony made for good reading, and it was easy to compose an essay that detailed a theme and message that entailed suffering. I liked the Russian writing, so full of pain and description that I readily transferred the emotion to my own page. Always, I admired the vivid prose of the Russian writers.
I’m tempted to conclude that writers who have suffered in their lives simply write better. I reckon that it takes pain to write pain, and only having lived it means knowing it well enough to communicate in literary form.
I just finished reading Rick Bragg’s memoir titled All Over but the Shoutin’. The Pulitzer Prize winner from the New York Times describes a poverty-stricken childhood in Alabama and his rise to a more cultured existence through his distinguished journalism. The success is not without guilt, however, as Bragg is often torn between his devotion to his mother and brothers, and his successful life outside of Alabama that his family has never seen and cannot imagine. Professionally, he is able to connect with subjects in the streets that are closer to his kin than the high-flying gentry that attracts the Ivy League journalists. He understands the underbelly of society and writes it “true.”
I loved Bragg’s book and found his writing to be absolutely magical. Hands-down, he has a gift for metaphors like no other. He describes his arrival in the Big Apple as a new reporter, “New York hurled stories at you like Nolan Ryan throws fastballs.” I won’t spoil some of the more special ones. Bragg also has a gift for some humor, and I particularly liked his story about falling into the water while he covered a story about alligators in Florida. “They pulled the two boats together so that I could easily jump from one to another, but either I pushed them farther apart when I made my leap or a ripple in the water did it for me, because I dropped like a sack of mud straight down into the black water of the eighteen-foot canal, and knew that I would surely die. I rose up to grasp the side of the boat, scared to death, waiting for one of those twelve-foot monsters to clamp down on my legs and drag me down. I tried to pull myself into the boat, but there was nothing to grab on to except the slick sides, and it was impossible for the little fellows on the boat to dead-lift a six-foot-two, 230-pound dumbass back over the side, to safety.” Like the pig in my previous post, I just had to laugh.
Would Bragg be such a good writer if his childhood had been kinder and gentler? I suspect not. I think that his childhood experiences shaped his writing into that which we recognize as literary genius. I think it’s funny that I looked to the Russians to satisfy the requirements for my World Literature class, a poor Southerner would have made an equally good choice. How ironic that I completed my undergraduate degree in Texas.