Sue Miller -- While I Was Gone Essay
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While I Was Gone
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While I Was Gone
Fiction | Hardcover
Knopf | May 2000
$24.00 | 0-375-41178-X

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While I Was Gone
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Ballantine | May 2000
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Random House Audio | May 2000
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While I Was Gone
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While I Was Gone
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Sue Miller discusses the books that have influenced her the most...

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I suppose every writer has certain talismanic books on her shelf, books she turns to when the enterprise seems just plain hopeless. These are the books whose power and idiosyncratic strengths insist that that isn't the case, that there are writers out there who seem, anyway, to have achieved their intentions; or who have, at any rate, written books which move or stir the reader (me) enough to make her think this is the case. It isn't so much that I'm looking at specific techniques when I read them -- though sometimes I am -- but that they thrill me. They make me feel that writing is exciting. Noble, even. They nourish me artistically. They inspire me to return to my own work, different as it may be from theirs.

And usually it is different -- or at least dissimilar enough to make me feel at a safe distance. To make me feel there's no danger of imitation, or of some kind of confusion in my own voice in response to theirs. And sometimes it's very different, so that even if I did move a little, or a lot, in the direction of the other writer, I'd still be nowhere near her. Or him.

Who are they? Alice Munro, first of all and most often. For her exploration of what consciousness feels like, of how we think. For the brave and unblinking way she looks at how we blink, how we deny what we know -- or push it aside so that we can go on. For her examination of how we go on. I find her utterly fearless. Open Secrets is one of my favorites. And The Progress of Love.

Alice McDermott, for the sheer size of the themes she deals with -- our will to life; our need for belief -- using the most ordinary details. And for the amazing, almost dizzying way she constructs her novels, the past circling the present, emerging into it. And the future sometimes having its say too. Charming Billy and That Night are the ones which stir me most.

Ian MacEwen for that same sense of the scope of his ideas. And then too for the gift he has of inventing the most extraordinary moments of moral definition to introduce into what seem the ordinary lives of the characters -- often moments of great cruelty or violence; always of compelling drama. There are four of his works I reread and reread: The Child in Time, The Innocent, Enduring Love, and Black Dogs.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling the impoverishment of my own imagination, I turn to writers whom I think of as generous. Thomas McMahon is one of these. He's out of print now, but his novel McKay's Bees is one I've read many times. Even the minor characters in this book receive the author's full attention -- always with the lightest of touches. The odd admixture of the sorrowful and the humorous in his work is reminiscent of the best of Cheever and Chekhov; and his knowledge of the working of the world and joy in conveying it -- he's a master of the scientific metaphor -- are part of the deep pleasure of reading him.

Larry Woiwode is another "generous" writer. His story of the Neumiller family in Beyond the Bedroom Wall is so richly and poetically detailed, so painfully and fully real, that I feel I've lived with them and suffered their stripes. His sense of how families work, how a wound in one member grows and changes him and then affects the other members too, seems flawless to me, and his writing is always breathtaking.

Others: Helen Garner, a master of compression and indirection in The Children's Bach; Carol Shields for Swann and The Republic of Love; Penelope Fitgerald for almost anything. All of them make me feel a simultaneous sense of unworthiness and overweening ambition. And that, I think, is where every writer starts. Or starts again.

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