• The Furniture of Your Mind

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 35 comments

    Discussion questions: Who are some writers that shape your life, shape how you move through the world and “the particular angles of [your] seeing”? What books have “become part of the furniture” of your mind?


    Erin M. Bertram, consultant and coachFirst things first: We want to welcome to the WriteByNight team our newest writing coach and consultant, Erin Bertram! Erin is an accomplished teacher and writer, with a memoir and thirteen chapbooks to their name. Erin’s Q&A is well worth your time, and if, after reading it, you’re interested in working together, sign up for a free writing consultation to discuss your goals.

    I could make an entire series of blog posts based on Erin’s responses, but for now I want us to discuss something that jumped out at me in answer to “Who are some of your influences?”

    “In terms of literature,” Erin says, “some of the writers whose work I keep returning to — who’ve shaped, and continue to shape, my life, how I move through the world, the particular angles of my seeing — include: Maggie Nelson, Frank Bidart, Anne Carson, Laurence Gonzales, Charles Jensen, Bhanu Kapil, Alain de Botton, Jennifer S. Cheng, Lao Tzu, George Herbert, Natasha Trethewey, Annie Proulx, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams, Carl Phillips, Stephen Mitchell’s translations of The Book of Job and The Epic of Gilgamesh, and my PhD committee chair Stacey Waite.”


    Writers who have “shaped, and continue to shape, my life, how I move through the world, the particular angles of my seeing.” Isn’t that lovely?

    It reminds me of a line from a George Orwell essay, “Books vs. Cigarettes,” in which he writes “There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life.”

    This is the kind of thing I look for in my reading: Books that change the way I see the world, and then, upon multiple readings, begin to feel like home.


    You regular readers can skip this part, where I mention, for about the thousandth time, those writers and books that are part of my mind’s furniture, that have shaped my life, the way I move through the world, the angles of my seeing.

    Stuart Dybek, particularly The Coast of Chicago.

    Toni Morrison, especially Jazz.

    Perhaps my earliest, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain.

    Several of Kevin Barry’s short stories, as well as both Beatlebone and now Night Boat to Tangier.

    Last Night at the Lobster.

    Zadie Smith, NW.

    And two nonfiction entries, Bottom of the 33rd and Exile’s Return.


    Now I want to know yours. Tell me about some books and writers that have affected you to the point where they’ve shaped your life; become part of the furniture of your mind. And how/why.

    And in what ways do you, as a writer, want to shape the lives of your readers?


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2020 writing project you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. If you have a manuscript that’s ready for some editorial care, check out our various critiquing, editorial, and proofing servicesJoin our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Oh wow, I never really considered who all shaped the furniture of my mind. I guess I could start with Louisa May Alcott and the ‘Little Women’ series (yes there is more than one book) Then there is Margaret Mitchell with ‘Gone with the Wind’. I loved the book as it gave a much better picture of the civil war and what Scarlett went through. Then there is James Michener with all his books that took me all over the world and the USA, giving an in-depth view of each area. Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’ was the non-fiction that I… Read more »


    I have reread Little Women about every 5-10 years. I still love it. Mitchell, I’m about to reread ‘Gone with the Wind” again as I loved to book. It’s one of the ones I kept when I had to pare down my library along with The Little Women series.


    It was traumatic. I moved from Florida to Arizona. Where I’m at right now, there is no room to store a ton of books. I had to decide what to keep and get rid of and that was extremely difficult. I kept around ten boxes of books. The rest were donated to other people and a second hand book store who paid me $.10 per book on the paperbacks, $1.00 a book on the hardcovers. I made over $50 on paperbacks alone at the store if that tells you anything. I’ll rebuild it again since I currently have three bookcases… Read more »

    Peter E. Greulich

    David, this is an easy one: Ida M. Tarbell. I went on a mission to collect her books after reading her four volume set of works on Abraham Lincoln. Her description of how the country mourned his death in Volume IV had me in tears. Through her, I think for the first time I understood who Lincoln was and why the country loved him. She makes history live. She crawls inside a person’s head, takes a comfortable, unassuming seat on the “furniture” she finds and shares her stories like an old friend sitting next to you in front of a… Read more »

    Peter E. Greulich

    David, I don’t think she is read much today probably because I find too many folks who believe that the past doesn’t matter. I too don’t believe that the past should be a hitching post for what we do today – that is too limiting – but it can be a lamp post to see divergent paths a person today can take in the future. Miss Tarbell, for me, is a person that when she writes is as much poet as descriptive prose. Check out this description of John D. Rockefeller Sr. she wrote … sound like a Stephen King… Read more »


    OMG… Ida Tarbell was from my home town, Titusville, PA. Not many people have heard of her. (and Ahm…Heisman of the trophy fame was from Titusville, too.)

    Peter E. Greulich

    Bobbie, the only thing my home town was known for was tumbleweeds, and coyotes and teenagers howling at the moon! ;)


    – Pete


    I would be most satisfied in my writing if my work prompted some readers to thoughtful reflection on their world’s reality, their place in it, and to find inspiration to take positive action. My list of those “furniture books” (Orwell is so quotable!) that did for me is long. I’ll just note the highlights here, specifying nonfiction as well as fiction. When it comes to inspiring a soul, they complement. The selections from my list (in no particular order): FICTION James Hilton: Lost Horizon H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds E. Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls W. Somerset… Read more »

    stephen Glick

    Ramundo, well put. fortune ang glory would be great , but just to be thought as a writer to whom opened doors for the young . Would be so great.


    Well, the couch is Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections; The soft chair you curl up in is Rainer Maria Rilke–Letters to a Young Poet and The Book of Hours; There is a rocking chair: Gandhi’s autobiography, Michael Collins’ biography. Arm chairs: Dorothy Day autobiography, Martin Luther King speeches, and Yeats’ poems. Then the hard kitchen table and chairs: The Great Hunger (like you may not like spinach but it’s good for you it is good to read this book). The coffee table is gonna be The House at Pooh Corner, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Robert Frost. And the bookshelves are… Read more »


    Which Michael Collns? The Irish leader or the astronaut? And which bio?


    I didn’t know there was an astronaut. It was Michael Collins, The Man Who Made Ireland by Tim Pat Coogan

    stephen Glick

    Good afternoon from Packer land. the book that has and still inspires me was written by my great grand father . I keep it proudly on my glass case of special books. By the end of 2020 the book will have inspired me to write my first three novels.My grandfathers book is a leather bound 3inch by 6inch. Written in his hand.


    go packers (but I still miss Brett Favre)


    Interesting, to say the least. I did not see that game live but have it on a DVD collection of Ten Greatest Packer Games, and the best thing about it was the expression on Favre’s face every time he missed a throw (oh, well, but that was really cool anyhow, wasn’t it?) or made one (did you see that?!)–the same joy either way. It was infectious.

    stephen Glick

    Hi again folks now no laughing or eye rolling, but how do you get your photo on the WBNpage?

    adrienne leslie

    Perhaps because I found the book in the attic of the house I was born in, the house we called The Old House, that the last sentence of Kingsley’s The Water-Babies stays with me.”But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretense: and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.” I write fiction. But the sweaters my characters wear are real and what they say, someone has said before and where they live is on a street not faraway. It’s… Read more »


    Thank you for inviting me to remember the old house–


    I like that because I do write contemporary fiction and speculative fiction that could all be real. Very memorable.


    Oh, Bobbie–thanks so much and yes, you certainly do capture the ‘real’ in your work;)


    More or less in chronological order of first encounter: The Dr. Seuss Dictionary, A Wrinkle in Time, the Phantom Tollbooth, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the biography of Albert Einstein, Catcher in the Rye, Roots, We the Living, The Fountainhead, Lord of the Flies, Jazz Country, Beneath the Underdog, 1984, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Memos From Purgatory, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the Life of Gandhi, the Theory and Practice of Hell, Night, A Hero in His Time, Local Anaesthetic, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Clockers, a Guide for Therapists, Close to the Knives…among many others. Special mention… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    Welcome, Erin! (Long answer follows.) There’s an adage (attributed to Peter Graham) that goes, “The golden age of science fiction is 12.” That literally applies to me. Never mind furniture; the scaffolding of my mind’s house is made of anthologies, beginning with the Alpha series edited by Robert Silverberg and the Orbit series edited by Damon Knight. Out of that early period (known as the New Wave subgenre in SF), two stories in particular continue to resonate: Harlan Ellison’s “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” (Orbit 5) and Norman Spinrad’s novella “The Lost Continent” (in Science Against Man, ed. by… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn

    PS: Just read Erin’s Q&A and can relate on two counts. My partner of 24 years has MS (I’m also a long-term caregiver) and journaling has been a lifesaver for me. And Erin’s mantra from Machado is very close to one of my touchstone quotes, from St. Juan de la Cruz: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”

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