Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Reasons I'm A Writer

Y'know... it occurs to me that I should stop making promises about what I'm going to write about on this blog the next week. Because in the moment that I make that promise, it sounds like a super idea, and I'm all pumped and jazzed about it, and then by the time the next week rolls around all I can think is, "Why the hell did I say I was going to write about that? That's BORING." Which is maybe a sign of some idea-commitment problems (the ideas and I are in couples therapy, don't worry), or my constant tendency to interrupt myself (hence the love affair with parentheses. Is anyone else losing track of the subject of this paragraph?) Either way, all I'm doing is making promises and breaking them, which isn't really a great pattern either in writing or in life, so I'm going to stop doing that.

I promise.

Anyway, clearly I'm not going to talk about fleshing the plot skeleton today, no matter what I said last week (although, that is a great title for a future post.) Nope, instead, I'm going to talk about books. As in, other people's books.

Now, I know this may seem odd, because this blog is about getting a look into the process of writing a novel, but believe it or not, reading other people's books is a huge part of this process. In fact, most writers and teachers of writers and books for writers and writers on writers and all-people-even-remotely-writerly will tell you (over and over again, in fact) that you must read if you want to write. For essential lessons, experience, inspiration, and so on.

Well, luckily for me, I'm a huge nerd. I'm not sure if this is because of some inherent genetic make-up, or because my parents fed me books before they gave me solid food, but whatever the reason, I've been a big bookworm my whole life. Which means that I've read a lot of books, of course, but it also means that I've read a lot of books more than once. And I've been spending a lot of time this week thinking about those books. You know, the ones you can't put down; the ones that changed your life; the ones that you revisit, year after year, like old friends. The ones that somehow shaped who you are. I think it's fair to say that I wouldn't be the writer I am, and maybe wouldn't have written Cloudland at all, if I hadn't read these books.

By the way, this isn't my only list of favorite books. I also have lists of Favorite Childhood Books, Books That Got Me Through Puberty Without Committing Heinous Bodily Harm To Myself or Others, Books That Changed The Way I Write, and so on. There's crossover from list to list, of course. But this particular list is of My All-Time Favorite Books, which you might also call The Reasons I'm A Writer.

At any rate, here's my list, in no particular order:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (I like the whole series, but for this list, specifically The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • Animal Dreams and Prodigal Summer, both by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
  • Written on the Body and Gut Symmetries, both by Jeanette Winterson 
  • The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin (I think the whole Earthsea series is wonderful, but this is the book I keep rereading, the one that touches something in me)
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
  • The Lost Prince and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
  • Angels in America, by Tony Kushner (yes, not technically a book, but so wholly life-changing for me that I can't leave it off of this list)

So, yep, there are quite a few Young Adult books in there, and there's a whole lot of sci-fi and fantasy on that list. And I will never apologize for that, although there's a large faction of people in the writing world (let's call them big old snobs) who look down on so-called genre books. Of course, if you just happen to not like these genres, I have no problem with that (my wife, sadly, doesn't like them, and clearly I still think she's OK.) We all have personal preferences. It's the people who sneer at them as being not real literature who I have issues with.

In fact, although I mostly write what I would call literary fiction (with smaller or larger dollops touches of magical realism, depending on the piece), I would say that science fiction and fantasy might be my favorite genres to read (I did say that I'm a huge nerd.) When they're really well done, they illuminate something for us about what it means to be human on this planet - which really is what good art does, in general. But I think that sci-fi and fantasy can often do it more clearly, with more painful accuracy, because they don't take place on this planet. They're removed enough that they allow us to read the painful truth, or look at the awful reality, without denying it or turning away from it, or collapsing under the weight of it. They give us mental and emotional space. Or at least, they do for me.

I don't always specifically invite comments, 'cause, well, what if no one comments?! Then I'll feel like the kid who threw a big birthday party that no one came to. But this time, I'm going for it. I'm taking the plunge: what are your all-time favorite books? Which ones do you either reread many times, or find yourself often thinking about?


  1. I do love Barbara Kingsolver. I read all of her books up until The Lacuna. She lost me on that one. :P

    One book that influenced my NEED to write was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I was just so taken by his imagery and description that I was aching to try it again myself after not writing for a few years.

    And it's funny...I write fantasy and spec fiction now, but my favorite genre to read is historical fiction. But I figure they're similar in that both transport the reader to new worlds. :)

    1. Yeah, the Lacuna wasn't her best, although I loved the first chapter.

      Now I need to read Cold Mountain. Adding it to my to-read list!

      And yes, I think you're right - whether the world is a brand new one, or one from the past, it's still somewhere NEW, and that's often what matters :)

  2. Can I post if I'm not myself writing a novel? Here goes...

    * Ditto on Lord of the Rings
    * Hitchhiker's "Trilogy" and the Dirk Gently novels, by Douglas Adams - never seen anything to rival that combination of razor wit and prose-craft.
    * Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
    * A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré

    1. Oops - that was me

    2. Of course you can! ALL comments welcome. Writers, readers, whoevers.

      I need to add Call It Sleep to my to-read list, too - that's a new one for me...