writers who consistently inspire me

My plan for the rest of the semester, as far as non-school things are concerned, is to read a lot, write the book reviews I owe to this blog, my food blog, and TeenReads/BookReporter/KidsReads, write a short story I’m playing around with, and go to the Schomburg Center in Harlem to do some research to get me back into the scheme of my novel. Then, when I go home to Tucson for a month, I’ll spend the majority of my non-family time finishing the novel. I’m confident that I will have enough time to do that–I’m already between 1/3 and 1/2 done, and my family will be working and I will be car-less a lot, so I’ll have the free time. I just have do sit down and do it.

Inspiration, imitation, emulation….it all kind of runs together at some point. After all, good writers borrow, great writers steal, right? So I’m finally beginning to understand those authors who say that once they’re really in the throes of a project, they have to stop reading, and I’ll accept that as soon as the semester is over, since not reading is totally impossible right now. I get it–you read so much and either you absorb another person’s voice or you spend a lot of time worrying about your project and whether it’s too derivative. I do both of those things. Almost immediately after reading Amelia’s Notebook when I was young, I pulled out some sheets of paper from a notebook, stapled them together, wrote Amelia’s Diary on the front, and got to work on my own story, which really had nothing to do with the original book except the obvious copying in style, format, and protagonist name. Anyway, that’s a really good developmental activity for a budding writer, but not so much for someone who’s working on conceivably publishable material.

But for now, I’m going to read and enjoy it. Because I can, because I have to, and because I want to. And at the risk of being derivative later, I will probably spend some time enjoying the writers I have consistently enjoyed, been inspired by, or just been encouraged by.

1. Rachel Cohn
Since I read Gingerbread when it came out, I have always looked for Cohn’s latest books, and I love them all (with the exception maybe of Pop Princess, though I admit I would like to take another look at that one), as a writer, as a reader, and as a critic. Not only is she freakishly genius at creating a really authentic teen voice without seeming like she’s trying too hard, but she’s just really friendly. I’ve emailed her two or three times to gush about how much I love her and she’s always really great about writing back and being personal in her response. Also, what she (and David Levithan, when they write together) does in her books is write about teens who are kind of fringe people, not in any sort of labeled social group, and often very much like the people I went to high school with, who functioned in a really, really strange and unique social culture. Cohn gets teens who are into indie music, and she writes about them. Cohn gets teens who have sex and don’t think it’s that big a deal, and she writes about them. Cohn gets teens who are obsessed with technology, and she writes about them. Cheerleaders, body image, and prom dates aren’t on her radar except in a way that’s like, “oh, them? yeah, I guess they exist.” Without fail, every time I read Rachel Cohn, I feel like the only thing I ever want to be is a YA author.

2. Helen Oyeyemi
Sometimes, actually, I wonder why I seek out her books every time she publishes a new one, because often I feel like I don’t get her at all. But then I do, and I love love love her first book, The Icarus Girl, unconditionally. I think I’m more inspired by her existence and her topics and themes than her writing itself, which sometimes veers too much towards incomprehensible. But she does magic realism in a new way, in a spooky way, and she uses mythology the average Western reader is not familiar with, but she doesn’t lose you. Also, I love that the publishing world doesn’t throw her into a niche of authors on cultural borders, even though really, that’s what you would expect marketers to do, because that’s what she is. It gives me hope that someday all literary authors of color will get recognized for their literature and its contribution to literature, not their works and their contributions to their ethnic group.

3. Henry James
Okay, I fully admit to only having read Daisy Miller and some of his quotes on writing and reading that are scattered in essays by other people. But not only did I love reading that story, but I loved its voice, and I loved discovering that snark isn’t just something from my generation, and in my entire educational history, it is one of the texts I have most enjoyed studying and discussing, especially since I did it in the context of my European Perspectives of American Literature class, which means we got to study Daisy Miller not just from a new critics’ perspective but also got to talk about different cultural receptions of the story and cultural understandings of the epoch it was about. This story speaks to my general interest as a writer to study character, not to plot events. And Amazon gave me Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew, so as soon as I have time to dedicate myself to a text that’s not for school or some semi-professional duty (so, never? yikes), I swear I’m reading them.

4. Sherman Alexie
This week in class, we read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to discuss under the lenses of structuralism/narratology and reader response. Earlier this year, I read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight In Heaven. I’ve seen “Smoke Signals” a few times, and I’ve read Alexie’s poetry and prose in anthologies. I think I’ve already blogged about how I love that he uses culture in a way that’s not alienating to non-members while still being rich and in-the-club for those who understand, but after talking about it in class (aka me co-opting the conversation again…I have to work on that), I want to add that I think he writes bridge texts, which are especially important given the audience he most strives to reach (at-risk, on the fringe, smart kids who need support but also aren’t helpless, I would wager). Also, I think his blog, and his other writing about his writing, are really important and meaningful. His non-fiction prose needs to be read by educators, people who think they know about education, librarians, writers, parents, and teens. You really see his passion and his technical skills and craft in all of his writing, and neither outshines the other.

5. Thisbe Nissen
One of my best friends in high school had a bedroom I was totally jealous of, because it was light, white, sort of French, and yet also a complete cave of books. By high school, she had read all of what most people read during their English literature PhDs, plus she and I loved to talk about our other tastes, especially teen angst novels and art house films. When I saw Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night, I knew I would love it, and I had to borrow it. I was correct. By the way, I think it is absolutely valid to judge a book by its title–I can always judge the success of any piece of writing I produce based on whether I come up with a genius title right away or go around forever and never come up with a good one. Thisbe Nissen is kind of my more “literary,” adult Rachel Cohn. I reread her collection of stories, or sometimes I read other books that she writes, and I feel validated in my teenness (I found that she was perfect at expressing the teen experience in more adult terms, and she captured the type of teen who, at least at the time I was reading and based on what I read thus far as a 16-or-so-year-old, is not often portrayed in YA or adult fiction) and in my writerlyness. Just like I like James for his character studies, I love Nissen for her moments, the other thing I love to do in my writing. Insignificant moments hold major significance, and dialogue is actually more like the way people write in their journals so it’s far more truthful and authentic even though it’s not authentic to human speech, and I know that doesn’t make any sense, but trust me, she’s awesome.

Agggggh. How can I write when there is so much out there to read and disintegrate into?

(Also, see other people’s favorite inspiring authors at Paper Hangover.)


6 thoughts on “writers who consistently inspire me

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. I’d be afraid to publish a list, just because it would become dated for me all too soon. I doubt I could list only five.
    Even more than your choices, I enjoyed reading your reasons.

    • Thanks, Mirka. This post really took some thought, and writing out the reasons made it easier for me to see who out of the hundreds of authors I’ve read are really meaningful, not just cool or interesting or exciting. I did have to go through my mental and Internet and physical bookshelves to remember everyone, but I don’t think this list will get as dated just because I spent so much time on it. But I’m sure I’ll find ways to make it longer as time goes on!

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