I grew out of a narrow tradition; as a writer, my education began with The Great Books on the dusty top shelf of the reference section in the library. I read Descartes, Spinoza, Aristotle, Plato. But that was later, when I was in high school. The first book of any literary consequence I ever read was George Orwell's 1984. I was ten. The magnetic weight of that book struck me, even though I didn't understand it thoroughly until I had read it many more times. And even though I didn't understand it all that well, I did begin to understand one thing: I began to understand that if I was going to write – which, by that time, I had already begun – that my goal was to write something that had that same kind of magnetic weight.
Naturally, I had no idea what an impossible standard it was that I set for myself. I had no idea that most writers are NOT artists and that by deciding that I WOULD BE an artist was more or less assigning myself to more trial, misery, glory, pain, and epiphany than anybody would choose if they had any sense.
If Orwell was the book that made me want to be an artist, then it was James Thurber's story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, that made me an English major. He's a writer that's generally ignored by both the academics and the outsiders; academics ignore Thurber because he wrote primarily to entertain, sometimes to poke fun, but never to tear down the upper middle class readership of the then young and frenetic New Yorker. He was no Sinclair Lewis. Outsiders ignore him because the New Yorker has become everything that's wrong with contemporary American writing and the intelligentsia; it's insipid, snobbish, lacking in balls or editorial integrity, and is completely isolated from a large segment of writing in America, and has been since Steinbeck. When I read Thurber now, I see him as one in a lineage of American writers that began with Mark Twain; like Mark Twain, Thurber is often pigeon-holed based on his early work. But that's not the only thing they have in common. Twain and Thurber were successful as artists because they showed a clear sense of the absurd. Thurber understood that Mitty, in his day dreaming, had more to do with what America was becoming than the wide-shouldered, straight-backed version that played out in the movies and popular literature. America was, in Thurber's time, a land of desperate, spineless dreamers. And in that realization, there is brilliance that still shines even though we have changed from desperate dreamers to just plain desperate.
But I loved books, and I was developing a love for literature; so I did what seemed to make sense. I threw myself into academia, into the canon. Some of them I loved; most of them I didn't. A few of those have warmed up to me over the years... not because I've developed a greater understanding of their place in the canon but because I'm hitting an age where their words speak to me instead of at me. Robert Frost is one. Dickens is another... though I limit myself to Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop. Whitman spoke to me at an early age; but then so did Chaucer and Milton. Milton is one I have always appreciated because his humane treatment of the devil in Paradise Lost remains a literary achievement that few have come close to. I don't agree with his intent or his final statement on the matter of humanity, the devil, and what it all means; but he was a Puritan's Puritan. He put protest in Protestant. So I overlook my glaring disagreements because … well... he was kind of an asshole. And even when I disagree with other assholes – because I have often been accused of being one myself – I at least like them. Just a little bit.
But even though I loved academia, I was struck with how dogmatic it could be. All institutions are dogmatic, whether they're academic, religious, or political. So I sought out other voices: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Corso. On The Road and Coney Island of the Mind stick out to me as significant influences on my development. Development, not style. I discovered literary rebellion. And it was wonderful. But to really appreciate and understand it, I had to move outside of academia; which began a long series of bouncing from job to job, in and out of academia. Getting divorced had something to do with that, as well. But I see that less a cause and more part of the effect of how I was developing, what I was becoming.