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Fall in Love with a Writer (Preferably a Dead One)

It’s no secret to those who know me well that I’ve loved the 19th century Irish playwright J.M. Synge ever since my freshman year of college. (Perhaps you have heard of The Playboy of the Western World?)

The first time I read Synge’s work was in a college set design class. “Riders to the Sea” is a 14-page play in which a mother loses the last of her sons to the dangerous sea surrounding the island on which the family lives. The play entranced me. There was something about the language — incantatory and unrelentingly sad — and the inertia, the high-impact emotion packed into this tiny little play. I was hooked.

As I learned more about Synge’s life, I started to identify with his psychology (or my perception of his psychology). To make an extremely long story short, I felt I had found a kindred spirit in this writer who, like me, had grown up with chronic illness, was something of a loner in his youth, had lost faith in the religion he was brought up with and sought to find a new personal spirituality, and, well, wanted to be a writer.

All of that is the story of why I felt so connected with Synge. But the feeling of love I have for Synge is something much simpler, something that has no narrative.

A few months ago I asked my Mindful Writing students to bring in a poem or a short paragraph by their favorite writer to class. Each student read the poem aloud, then silently to themselves. As they read their poems, I asked them to pay attention to their bodies. What did they feel when they read their favorite writer’s words?

Responses included tenderness in the chest; excitement — a quickening of the heartbeat; warmth in the neck, face, hands.

I have a similar response to this poem by Synge:


A Question

I asked if I got sick and died, would you

With my black funeral go walking too,

If you'd stand close to hear them talk or pray

While I'm let down in the steep bank of clay.

And, No, you said, for if you saw a crew

Of living idiots, pressing round that new

Oak coffin, they alive, I dead beneath

That board, – you'd rave and rend them with your teeth. 

When I read this poem, I feel something particular shift inside my heart. I feel warm and tender and sad and excited. But it's not a love poem. It's pretty dark. I don't even think it's the "best" poem in the world. I can think of poems I like better. But to have a favorite writer is a very personal thing. Everything about their writing, the rhythm, the word choices, sentence lengths, mood, tone, emotion, sounds, becomes a kind of magic. And the physical response that comes with it, it seems, is a lot like feelings associated with being in love: warmth, tenderness, excitement. 

I’ve known for a little while that IDP Teacher Kim Brown has her own love affair going with Anton Chekhov. I asked Kim to tell me how she feels when she reads Chekhov:

When I read Chekhov's plays, I feel such a tenderness in my heart and it's so full of admiration and gratitude for his deep love and empathy for humans and their humanness.  And then a deep sadness to know I'll not know him except in his words and I'll never get to tell him how much I love him and sit next to him silently and smell what he smells like and learn what he likes to eat and the sound of his voice.

I can relate. I’ve longed to meet Synge, even had dreams about meeting him. But, according to Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, simply to fall in love with a writer is a magnificent thing to have happen:

Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That’s what being a lover is: stepping out of yourself, stepping into someone else’s skin. Your ability to love another’s writing means those capabilities are awakened in you. It will only make you bigger; it won’t make you a copy cat. The parts of another’s writing that are natural to you will become you, and you will use some of those moves when you write. But not artificially. Great lovers realize that they are what they are in love with.

Who is your favorite writer and how do you feel when you read his or her work? I invite you to read your favorite poem or short story, paying attention to how your body feels while you read, and share your experience below.




Emily Herzlin teaches Mindful Writing classes at Columbia University and the Interdependence Project (beginning Saturday February 16th) and is blogmaster for the IDP blog. Email [email protected] for more information.

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Maybe it's better this way . . .

The main character in Proust's novel meets his favorite author, Bergotte at a dinner party and is terribly disappointed to discover a “youngish, uncouth, thickset and myopic little man"!

(Also am in love with Don DeLillo but since he's alive I don't talk about it too much. I sat behind him at a film screening a few years ago but got too nervous to thank him for his work.)

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