February 21, 2010

Reads That Feed

I recently read this post from the venerable Maggie Stiefvater about books that feed her creativity while working on a project. There are those writers who don't like to read while they're writing because they don't want to 'corrupt' their own authorial voice (there are those would-be writers who hardly read at all... say what?). That's something I can understand, to a point, but not something I resonate with. If anything, I read more when writing something new.

This is, undoubtedly, a procrastination tool ("It's OK that I'm not writing. I'm reading"), but it is also something else, something important. When I'm writing, I feel compelled to turn back to the writers that rocked my world with their words and their stories. I can turn to these beloved reads and know that I can crack them open to any page and come across passages like this:
He flapped again at the flies and looked out the window at the first smear of foggy dawn and waited for the world to begin shaping up outside. The window was tall as a door, and he had imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there. - Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
And this:
"Hello boys."
"Hello, Mrs. Lisbon" (in unison).
She had the rectitude, Joe Hill Conley later said, of someone who had just come from weeping in the next room. He had sensed (this said many years later, of course, when Joe Hill Conley claimed to tap at will the energy of his chakras) an ancient pain arising from Mrs. Lisbon, the sum of her people's griefs.
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
And then this:
I loved hearing Anatole speak English. His pronunciation sounded British and elegant, with "first" coming out as "fest," and "brought" more like "brrote." But it sounded Congolese in the way it rolled out with equal weight on every syllable- a pig in a sack- as if no single word wanted to take over the whole sentence.
- Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
These books are what I want my writing to be: they are powerful without being overpowering, elegant without being flowery- every word and detail adds something powerful to the story and the flow. They inspire me, chiefly, because they are beautiful examples of voice. These are voices I can pick out of a crowd, so strong and assured that they literally sweep you off your feet and into the world they are creating. These voices have a unique and undeniable pull.

There are moments when I find this exercise deflating, especially on a bad writing day ("My writing will NEVER be this good. In fact, in comparison, it is two inches shy of abysmal"). These moments are almost always overridden by feelings of awe and inspiration. Every time I open these books, I learn something new that I can bring to my craft. I am challenged to rise above my best and reach for something even better. These authors feed my creativity in ways that make me want to be better.

Other books I like to return to are The Time Traveler's Wife, Bel Canto, and (for travel writing) Confederates in the Attic. Are there reads that feed your creativity? What is it about them that brings you coming back?


  1. You're writing IS that good, my dear. I have enjoyed reading your work way more than most books I buy. I like that books take me to another place, and provide an escape. Or I like that they expand my horizons and make me wonder about things I haven't before. Your writing does all of that. Keep it up!

  2. I JUST picked up a copy of Bel Canto from the used bookstore -- had never heard of it before, but was drawn to it for some reason. Perhaps it was our soul connection that made me pick it up? It's in the pile for now, but will be read (and appreciated) on a whole new level thanks to you, miss thing!