In the summer of 2007, I purchased a used copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well
at the Brown University Bookstore. Over the next few months, that book — with its yellowed pages, $0.99 price sticker, and boast of “More Than One Million Copies Sold” — changed my life.
Well, without that book — which I read later that summer during lunch breaks at my first post-college “real world” job at a major children’s publishing house in New York — I wouldn’t be here, writing an introduction to an article in my hometown alt-weekly. See, it wasn’t just Zinsser’s writing advice that entranced me: “There’s no subject you don’t have permission to write about,” “Don’t overstate,” “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” It was the way he sprinkled in personal anecdotes about feature writing at the New York Herald Tribune; traveling to Timbuktu for Conde Nast Traveler; and writing books about jazz, baseball, and the New York Public Library. Sitting in my grey-walled, grey-desked, grey-ceilinged cubicle, I not only wanted to try out Zinsser’s writing advice, I wanted to try out his life. I soon quit the publishing gig and took an internship at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Of course, there’s way more to that story than I’m letting on, and I’m happy to share the details on another day. (Another thing Zinsser taught me: be generous with your time. Years after I read his book, I wrote to him and he hosted me at his Manhattan office for more than an hour to talk about writing and life. In the unlikely event any local college students are equally eager to meet me, drop a line.)
But for now, I’ll just share what happened when we asked artists, activists, politicians, and other interesting Rhode Islanders about a book — or film or album or cultural/historical moment — that shaped their life.
Read on for second-hand inspiration.
NAME | Paula Hodges
AGE | 29
TOWN | Providence
WORK | Governmental relations director, Planned Parenthood Votes! RI; board member, New Leaders Council
INSPIRATION | It’s hard to pick one influence, mentor, or opportunity that shaped me into the feminist and operative I am today. But if I have to pick one moment that speaks to college students, I might point to the anxiety I felt between 22 and 25 years old.
During those years, questions like, “What sector should I work in? Where should I live? Should I buy a house?” seemed daunting. I felt boxed in by a fear that one misstep taken while changing career paths, getting married, or moving across the country could preclude other choices and change the entire course of my life — for good and bad.
As someone who believes personal development drives professional success, I recommend young professionals read Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life In your Twenties, by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner. Sometimes it helps to know there are millions of others facing the same historic, financial, and environmental challenges that you’re facing, and once you accept that, taking life’s detours seems more bearable. It certainly makes turning 30 seem like an accomplishment!
SEDUCTIVE Helen Mirren in 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.'
NAME | Daniel Kamil
AGE | 44
TOWN | Providence
WORK | Owner, Cable Car Cinema
INSPIRATION | The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) by Peter Greenaway was the seminal film-going experience that made me want to devote my career to the medium. I saw this at Lincoln Plaza across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan around the same time as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (that film also resonated and, in my humble opinion, Spike has not made a better one). Who could not be seduced by a young Helen Mirren? Threatened by Michael Gambon? Overwhelmed by Greenaway’s painterly composition? Each and every shot considered and referencing classical art. And costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier added another surreal dimension.
NAME | Jared Moffat
AGE | 22
TOWN | Providence
WORK | Founder and director, Regulate Rhode Island, a coalition of citizens working to legalize and regulate marijuana
INSPIRATION | In 2010, I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. The book shook my conviction that the US’s racist past was behind us.
I learned that young black men are being literally disenfranchised and treated as less than human, something I didn’t think was possible in the 21st century. Drug felons in many states are stripped of their right to vote — literally disenfranchised because of the War on Drugs. Students who are convicted of a drug charge are denied access to federal financial aid for college. Individuals convicted of a drug charge can be legally denied a job, they don’t qualify for certain federal housing subsidies, and they are stigmatized and marginalized in mainstream culture outlets.
The book inspired me to learn more and become an activist to end the War on Drugs, and that’s exactly what I’m doing today.