An overwhelming part of our human history is unrecorded. It is quite sketchy for us to know exactly what people thought, their beliefs, motives and aspirations were. Sure, we can piece together reconstructions from artifacts and so on, but it isn’t quite the same as actually recording it. Much of our knowledge of ancient times, therefore, is a matter of interpretation. The invention of writing in early human civilisations is credited to the Sumerians, in Mesopotamia and the Egyptians around 3500 BC. They were the masters of pictographic scripts.
Literature and writing, as a more ’true’ form of written expression developed later first with the Greeks and Romans. The first epic poems such as Homer’s The Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses inspired generation of scholars and readers alike. In the East, Islamic culture and literature would be encapsulated in wonderful folk tales like The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Further east in China, the first great military author, Sun Tzu would bequeath to the world his The Art of War. This book alone has influenced many modern military tacticians and officers today.
It is here that I will transgress from leading the reader down a brief history of writing and open with my conversation with my good friend AJ to participate in a conversation. His love for writing and poetry is immense and has somewhat shaped the person that he is today. Here is what we talked about.
What books have most influenced your life?
“The Bible for a philosophy of life. The Odyssey for heroic inspiration and ancient thought. To Kill a Mockingbird for the moral teaching and revelation of Southern life and soul. Crime and Punishment because of Dostoevsky’s grasp of the human condition and description of the Russian soul. Paradise Lost because of the powerful imagery, language and message. (Finally) Shakespeare’s Sonnets because of his use of the English language and his view of the human condition, especially the theme of love.”
Out of all of these books above, I would dare to say that one of these is your favourite book ? Which one and why?
“To Kill a Mockingbird captures the life of a small town, in the rural South, wrestling with racism, morality, prejudice, child-rearing, single-parenting, the effects of one man standing against insurmountable odds for what is right, and the importance of a father’s influence. I’ve read this book many times and it still moves me each time, as does the film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. It’s as faithful to the book as any movie has ever been.”
AJ, you have known me for a while now and that I love history. You wont find many fiction books in my home library, most of my books are about Roman history, Europe and war. I also know that you read my blog and have an interest in history too. What is your favourite history book and why?
“From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Martin Barzun. Barzun’s sweeping chronicle of Western Civilization is breathtaking in its scope and wisdom. It’s encyclopedic content was overwhelming. I was familiar enough with world history to be able to follow and digest his great book. His conclusions about civilization are somewhat pessimistic but one can only marvel at his grasp of history.”
If you had to choose, which writers would you consider a mentor? (If possible, please name at least one ancient, medieval and modern mentor. And briefly why?)
“The (authors of) Bible because it is the revelation of God to man and the chronicle of His people. It provides a basis of a moral philosophy to live by. Homer because through The Iliad and The Odyssey we catch a glimpse of the ancient Greek world and their worldview. Also, Homer reveals how the Greeks related to their deities. Sophocles because, through his plays, he depicts the struggle between man and his gods and the struggle to understand why things happen in the world. Aeschylus, often described as the Father of Tragedy, reveals the human conflict in and relationship to the gods. Augustine because of his teaching and influence on the Early Christian Church. Hildegard von Bingen because of her faith, her gifts, her music, her spirituality and one of the first feminine influences in Church History. Dante’s Divine Comedy because Dante encapsulated the teaching of Thomas Aquinas in his literary masterpiece. His imagination and art have influenced me. CS Lewis because of his approach to explain and defend the existence of God. Francis Schaeffer because of his approach to explaining and defending the existence of God; also because of his description of a Christian worldview. (Last but not least) Ernest Hemingway because of his writing style and subjects.”
I can see why Ernest Hemmingway is considered one of your mentors. He is truly one of those larger than life characters that also interests me. Others writers mainly historians inspire me like Averil Cameron and Lars Brownworth. From a creative point of view, J.K. Rowling inspire me, as she has inspired a generation of new readers and writers, to dream big. Which writers inspire you to write?
“Yes, I would choose Hemingway for his ability to tell a story simply and concisely. E. E. Cummings for his brilliant approach to poetry. Dostoevsky for his romanticised view of life, sentimentalism, and Christian themes and symbols. Lately, I’ve been reading poetry from the Imagist Poets, such as Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams. I’ve discovered that some of my poetry could be classified as imagistic. Pound’s definition of the image was “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Capturing this image, almost like a photograph, in words.”
What is the hardest thing about writing ?
“Two things: 1) Making time to write or being able to write anytime, anywhere. It used to be easier for me to do this. 2) For me, writing dialogue is the hardest part of writing. I’ve given up writing short stories until I can study and master dialogue.”
Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer?
“Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” And also, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
- Write early and often.
- Record your thoughts on your phone verbally, for later reference.
- Practice, practice.
- Try to write about new things.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer ? How did you catch the writing bug?
“I’ve written a lot of different things over the course of my life but it only has been in the past year that I have considered myself a writer. I have been consumed with learning more about writing and poetry.”
In life, where do you find inspiration to write?
“Music: jazz, classical, love songs. Nature, seasons. Relationships. Movies. Literature. Poetry.”
What do you think makes a good story?
“There is great discussion about whether or not a story should be plot or character driven. I think it is best to have both, but if a book doesn’t make me love or hate the characters, the plot doesn’t hold me. And I think dialogue. I love to read a story and be able to follow the dialogue without trying to figure out who is saying what!”
There are so many great writers and interesting books around the world, except we struggle to gain access to them, partly because there are no reliable translation and publishers who are willing enough to bring those books to us. Why is this such a great disappointment? Is there anything we can do about it?
“I’m not sure I have an answer. I do know that many of the works by polymaths (a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas) who write in different languages, remain inaccessible. Many works of South Americans, Spanish, and Arabic are out of reach. For example, Alexandre Dumas was so prolific and I have read almost all of the works that were translated in English but was shocked at the number of volumes that have not been! Naruda is an example of a poet’s work translated to English in the past 10 years or so. Well, in this day in age we have more of a voice than almost any other time in history. Indie or self-publishers. So maybe there is hope in this avenue.”
Every now and then I seek inspiration from reading your poetry. Your work allows me to clear my head on those days where not everything always goes as smoothly as we hope. Why is reading so therapeutic?
“I’m humbled and honored that you find my poetry inspirational and therapeutic. I think if one can write words that resonate with other’s joy or sadness or suffering or any other emotion, one has succeeded as a writer or poet. If the reader can imagine his or herself in the creation, he or she knows someone else has lived in that humanity. For a short moment in time, the reader and writer can transfer feelings and thoughts across time. (Stephen King calls this “telepathy”.) “
And is writing therapeutic too?
“Yes, absolutely, writing can be and should be therapeutic. Sharing one’s ideas and feelings, can be soothing or cathartic. Writing, just getting the words out there, if not spoken, then in writing. Some of my darker poems have helped “purge” some negative emotions. (Layers of Sadness and Sisyphus Sadness).”
Can you tell the reader about any books you are reading now?
“I have two I’m working on now: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is the first of three novels discussing the colonization of Mars. The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates is a description of the Ancient Greek’s method of retaining vast amounts of information and traces its use through the 17th Century.”
Finally AJ, I was hoping you could indulge me with this one final question. Truman Capote is an amazing writer who could change between writing styles. He is famous for his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he was also easily able to switch between genres to write true crime ‘In Cold Blood’. Should writers today be able to change at will or should they stick to want they know best?
“I believe that a writer should first be true to himself or herself. For some, switching styles or genres may be easy or may be a challenge they are willing to tackle. I think anything that would serve to improve one’s writing should be an option. Such as a fiction writer might attempt a journalistic venture. Or maybe poetry.
A huge thanks to AJ for his patience, time and contribution. You can read AJ’s amazing blog and poetry at AJWrites57. You can also discover the latest news via AJ’s twitter account @ajwrites57.