I believe in the power of fiction to change lives. Nine summers ago, when I was 18, I
stumbled across a book of short stories in my parents’ library. I didn’t recognize the author or the title, nor had the book been recommended to me. But by happy accident,
something about it piqued my interest and I started to read it.
The book was the complete short stories of Irwin Shaw. Born in 1913, Shaw wrote novels, plays and short stories, many of which were hailed in their day but have since have fallen out of favor.
The book was over five hundred pages long, a lifetime contained in stories. I took my time reading it, making it last over the next several weeks, savoring it the way someone savors a bowl of ice cream to the last spoonful, or the way someone stays in a bath long after their fingers have pruned.
Shaw’s prose was stylish and graceful, sparse and yet profound. He wrote about real characters–they seemed real to me, anyway–going about their everyday lives. A
man taking a stroll with his wife, who can’t help but notice other women; a former college football player revisiting the field where he once carried the ball eighty yards; a man overhearing an argument in the street from his Paris apartment window.
I cannot describe the magic these stories worked on me that summer, but by the
time I was finished I was determined to become a writer. The problem with wanting to be a writer is that no one can tell you if or when you’ve become one. Ultimately, that
knowledge begins and ends with yourself.
I’d like to think that I still would’ve become a writer, had I not stumbled across Shaw’s stories. I’d like to think that some other writer would have shown me the way. Or maybe not.
Maybe my life would have taken a radically different turn that summer. Maybe I would’ve gone on to major in physics or math in college, and right now I would be reading you a completely different essay, one perhaps extolling the virtues of quantum mechanics or differential equations.
But what I do know is this. Nine years ago I stumbled across a book, and it changed my life.
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