Nine Books to Inspire You to Write While Escaping the Virus
These are hard times for everyone – stuck at home amid the constant backdrop of Coronavirus news. I want an escape but I also want to be productive – what to do when for some reason I am just sick of writing stuff!
Read of course! My bookshelves are stuffed with tomes on every topic imaginable. In a book of quotations for writers, I found this:
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.” – William Faulkner.
I searched through my shelves and came up with this list of books that I not only enjoyed but also taught me a few things about the craft of writing.
My first pick is The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Yes, I know you have probably already read it but the story of the Joad family is well worth revisiting. The story alone will transport you into the early 20th century Great Depression in America’s Dust Bowl. Reading it a second time, when you are not distracted by wanting to know what happens next, will allow you to notice Steinbeck’s voice and style You will notice how he develops his characters and themes throughout the book. Now’s the time to pencil in notes near the passages you love or copy them into your writer’s journal.
On to a more contemporary novel, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Set in time when conservative forces have overthrown the United States government and have renamed the country the Republic of Gilead, Atwood tells the story in the voice of a handmaid who is assigned to a family solely as surrogate mother. There are wonderful descriptive passages of an alternative universe that you can lose yourself in while taking notes of some great writing.
Next up is Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments. This novel is an engrossing story from the perspective of three different women living in the fictional Republic of Gilead about 15 years after Offred told her story in The Handmaid’s Tale. The book is an entertaining look into a fictional world and a great escape from the real world news of sickness and death. I loved how she used the voices of each character to tell the story.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite books. Set in the Belgian Congo in 1959, the story is told in the alternating voices of the wife and four daughters of an evangelical Baptist preacher. The backdrop is Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium and the murder of its first elected prime minister and the CIA coup to install his replacement. If you aspire to be a travel writer, read this book to learn how a writer can weave personal stories into current or past events. I also appreciated the descriptive passages that made the Congolese landscape come alive. I copied many passages into my writing journal.
Now I am going to bring you back to the early 20th century in a book by Ernest Hemmingway – A Moveable Feast. This slim volume is a compilation of sketches of his life in 1920s Paris. Reading Hemingway teaches us the value and power of the declarative sentence. His essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald is a good read and gives the reader a deep look into Zelda’s sad and faraway personality. Can you write some short sketches about different periods in your life or places you have visited?
I would be remiss if I did not offer Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another into the mix. Published in 1978 just as she was turning 60, Gellhorn writes of her adventures in several countries including Africa. Gellhorn is a master of descriptive writing. I would like to try writing in Gellhorn’s dry, sarcastic voice the next time I make an attempt at a travel essay. Reading this book will quickly make you forget you are stuck in the States with no possibility of travel in the near future!
Another top favorite book of mine is the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I can’t say enough about this heartbreaking novel that propelled me into a life and culture I knew nothing about. If you have already read the book, read it again to learn the some of the literary techniques that Hosseini employs. Hosseini uses flashbacks the most to bring the reader from his main character’s childhood, adult young and then finally to manhood. I also admired the foreshadowing Hosseini used that immediately drew me into the book from the first page:
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
After reading that line I was hooked and started to experiment with some foreshadowing in my non-fiction pieces.
I particularly enjoy memoirs because I like to get a look into someone else’s life and motives – it’s probably the journalist in me that compels me to want to know what someone I have no connection to is doing or thinking. If you are an aspiring memoir writer I am going to recommend two of my favorites here: Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Educated by Tara Westover. Both women are top-notch storytellers who take their readers to out of the way places giving them a long look in their out of the ordinary experiences. Both women tell their stories from their vantage point and do not seem to worry if others do not see the situation in the same way – a good way to write a story about yourself that is clearly about yourself.
So pick one of my favorites or maybe you have another book you are deep into during this crazy virus time. As Stephen King said:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”