These I Have Loved: 10 Books That Shaped Me
OTP author Fiona Fieldhouse discusses the surprising influence of the books she has loved.
I was on a quest, utterly focussed, unshakeably sure that I would be a writer until a book made me change direction and turned me into someone quite different.
Initially an oak tree, darker green than its neighbours and bearing many different fruits, inhabited by pixies and enchanted forest folk, captured my imagination. It gave me that unmatched magic experience of being drawn into another world. I lived through the conflicts, challenges and triumphs of the story until all the threads were drawn together and I closed the book with a satisfied sigh. I was a small child on a Mission Station in Africa and it was Enid Blyton’s ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ that made the magic. I knew I wanted to make magic, too. I would be a writer and I started at once. And then something else was added to this world of fantasy.
Grand ideals entered my world; heroes and villains, damsels in distress. Above all, might defended right, good triumphed over evil, the strong protected the weak. ‘The Stories of King Arthur’ retold by Blanche Winder had been placed in my hands. It was captivating stuff and light years from the pixies at the top of the Faraway Tree. These heroes demonstrated not only courage but enormous ability and skill. My captivation continued with courtly love described by Chaucer and The Knight’s Tale from ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and T.H.White’s ‘The Once and Future King’. I embraced heroism and courage and pursuit of excellence, confident that I was following the right path and I wrote of romance and ‘derring do’. By now I had reached my teens.
But then, at an English girls’ school, I encountered ‘One Pair of Feet’ by Monica Dickens. Her account of nursing in London in World War Two addressed the threat of annihilation, the struggle to cope with death, anxiety and indignity, while being motivated by a strong urge to help people in need. It was entrancing, noble and yet it was funny. The people described were flawed, irreverent, human. In spite of the noble aspirations, mistakes were made, laughed about, forgiven. It was a lively, challenging world and it grabbed me completely. You could magic the sick back to health and rescue and support the weak. It was a world I wanted. My straight path became cross-roads. I abandoned writing. In the swinging sixties I arrived on Nightingale ward in a London teaching hospital, crisply starched and ready with a cool hand for any fevered brow. Florence would have been proud, but the quest had faltered.
Much later, the conflicts and challenges of real life threatened to overwhelm. Far from home in the Middle East, falling apart and struggling, I was walking through the narrow space between tall shelves in a British Council Library when a book inched itself forward as I passed. It was Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage To Be’. ‘Being’ was my present difficulty. He spoke of the conflict between imaginary worlds and the real world, conflict between reaching for greatness and perfection and the experience of one’s own small imperfection, the desire to be accepted and being rejected, the will to be and the seemingly intolerable burden of being which evokes the desire not to be. Heavy stuff but for me a light-bulb moment and inch by slow inch, I understood and accepted how we are all carried by the creative power of being in which everyone participates. Tentatively, I tiptoed on with the quest.
As I clasped my courage closely in one hand and grasped my slowly unfurling banner of creativity with the other, I found myself living in Dublin amongst the wordiest, most creative people on this planet. The spoken word flooded over me and lapped about me and washed doubt away. Now my guide was Dorothea Brande and her book ‘Becoming a Writer’. If you are a writer, she told me, with no creative outlet, you will become unhappy, thwarted, restless. You will only be happy following your creative instincts, even if at times you suffer the torture of the damned because of your insufficiencies. You have two sides, the emotional and the rational. The magic is drawing the two sides together as one, the creative process. Paul Tillich gave me the courage and Dorothea Brande fired up the belief. I wrote, with small successes. I read; poetry, fiction, philosophy, biography, drama. Anthologies such as John Julius Norwich’s series of ‘Christmas Crackers’ opened up a world of words and wit and wisdom. Anything involving the use of words, the creative process, was, and is, endlessly fascinating and joyful.
Now I see my own imperfection and you may see the limits of my creativity. To keep striving is a life force. And, says Mary Oliver in her book of essays, ‘Upstream’, if you don’t heed your call to creative work, don’t listen to your own restive and uprising creative power, you will become one of the most regretful people on earth. In Margaret Atwood’s book, ‘Negotiating with the Dead’, she says writers must descend into a well of inspiration to find their story and bring it back. Then it must all be written down. Finally, if you are lucky, someone will read what you have written.
When I was brought to the cross-roads by ‘One Pair of Feet’, should I have recognised that it was the writing that fascinated, not the world it described? Should I have stayed on the path that led to writing? But what would I have written about? Nursing was total immersion in the human condition, its joys, tragedies, fears and laughter. One thing I know. My well of inspiration would not have been as full as it is now.
With a story that will warm your heart, Fiona Fieldhouse’s novel ‘Alison’s New Beginnings’ is out now, in e-book and print.