Shannon Reeds’s story “Idlewild” recently appeared in Terrain.org. Here, she offers some reading recommendations, suggesting a few works that have helped shape her writing.
Because I teach Introduction to Writing Fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what young (in experience, not age) writers can learn from reading stories. This is wonderful for my own writing too, for there is also much for me to remember about the craft of writing fiction.
I ask my students to read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life throughout the semester. Nearly all of them love it, as I do. Lamott’s voice and style are so distinctive—warm, enthusiastic, witty, and supportive. This isn’t a book that’s full of exercises (although it’s got those) nor advice on getting published (although it has some of that as well), but instead is a wonderful manifesto for the idea that writing is important and that everyone has stories inside of them that need to be told.
We read dozens of short stories in my class, but the one that we always come back to, over and over, is Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which is in The Complete Stories. Nearly anything you’d like to learn about writing is here: how to build character, how to create a memorable finish, how to write about social justice issues without being preachy. Yet it—and most of the rest of her work—also reads beautifully, lesson-free, if you prefer. Be forewarned—O’Connor will change the way you see.
My class can’t stop raving about Justin Torres’ We the Animals, a book that is so exquisitely crafted and specifically created that the writer has said that many people assume it’s a memoir. It’s not. It’s a perfectly realized chronicle of an upstate New York boy’s growth into a young man, ready to leave his family behind. The craft is dazzling, but it’s also touching, unnerving, and deeply memorable.
Of course, not everything I read can make it into the classroom, but I often read to teach myself. Right now, I’m besotted with Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. It’s set in the Antebellum South, and moves throughout the thoughts of a large cast of characters. This book is not terribly dissimilar to 12 Years of Slave, and should still be as widely hailed as that work. I’m working on a novel about the Johnstown Flood of 1889, and I find myself returning to The Known World to try to learn how Jones is able to so vividly and believably capture such a wide variety of people.
Similarly, I’m often drawn back to Thomas Cahill’s work. He writes nonfiction: erudite, painstakingly researched books about “the hinges of history”—moments when movements began or people changed in meaningful ways. All of the books in the series are beautiful, but I frequently reread How the Irish Saved Civilization, especially now that I’m writing about Irish immigrants to Johnstown. How he can capture so much knowledge and make it enjoyable to read baffles, but also pleases me. The world of books is so vast, and his work reminds me that it’s a delight to get to wander around in it.
Shannon Reed is an MFA student in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches Intro to Writing Fiction. Her work was recently featured at McSweeney’s, and her first book will be published by McGraw-Hill this month.
Her story recently appearing in Terrain.org is partly inspired by Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, where she spent many happy days as a child.