An Inspirational Series, a Famous Hometown Author,
and a Writer Who Made me Laugh
By Jeff Salter
Wow. So many possibilities. No way I can limit this to a single title. So I’ll talk about a series and two authors … who greatly helped shape me as a writer.
Beginning in the 1940s (before my time), the Bobbs-Merrill Company published a series called ‘Childhood of Famous Americans’. They were biographical treatments, but instead of focusing on the subjects’ notable adult achievements and providing brief back-story of their younger years, these books merely mentioned their mature accomplishments and spent probably 80% of the pages detailing their childhoods. [Similar to Paul Harvey’s ‘the rest of the story’ radio series — we learn which childhood experiences shaped a famous person’s later years.]
Were these treatments 100% fact? Uh, no. Some built on unsubstantiated legends and nearly all the youthful dialog was likely fabricated. But these books did capture the essence of those young people … and that’s what I enjoyed reading. Some of those pre-fame kids were a lot like ME.
There were probably about 250 titles in the series at the time I was immersed … and I read nearly every one in our school and public libraries. Just now looking over an updated list of titles, I recognized nearly six dozen that I read … mainly in 4th and 5th grades.
I called them ‘cloud’ books because of their distinctive covers. In later years, the covers changed, of course, but the inspiring content was the same.
It was fascinating to see the world (those very different time periods) through the young eyes of people who later became famous. The realization that nearly all of those celebrated individuals were born / raised in very ordinary circumstances affirmed a sense that I, too, could achieve wonderful things. If I put my mind to it and invested the requisite time and labor, I could be an inventor, athlete, statesman, explorer, or … yes, even a writer!
I love The Moviegoer (1961) because Percy’s first published novel was composed (at least partly) while he was in the same local writing group as my Dad … and they rotated location of the meetings among the residences of the members.
But my favorite of Percy’s six novels is probably still The Last Gentleman (1966). Can’t exactly put my finger on it, but possibly because his characters had such depth.
Percy inspired me because we lived in the same small town and I knew him. He was a good friend of my parents and our families had considerable interaction. [One example: my mom drove my sister and Percy’s daughter to ballet practice … and Mrs. Percy drove them both home.]
From Percy, I learned the way an acclaimed, award-winning, best-selling author could and should conduct himself. He was friendly, down-to-earth, and interested in other people and his community. He was NOT an arrogant, selfish, ego-maniac … like some writers who have accomplished a lot less than Percy did over his 30 year career.
Bryson is certainly not the only writer who has made me laugh so hard and so long that my belly ached. But he’s the most recent author to do so.
From Bryson, I learned that humor can be found in the most ordinary things. Other people could observe the precise same circumstances or incidents (obviously, though, from vastly different perspectives) and would describe them in such completely different terms … that their accounts would be deadly dull and dry.
My two favorites of Bryson’s are A Walk in the Woods (1998) and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006).
‘Hearing’ Bryson’s voice – in his prose – reminded me of some autobiographical chapters I had written nearly 25 years earlier. And it was shortly after reading Bryson that I returned to writing humor after that long absence.
Who are the authors (or, what are the titles) which shaped YOU as a writer?
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