What do you read to spark your writing?

I’ve been thinking a lot today about how reading informs writing.

I read voraciously, and re-read frequently, especially books that engage with questions that I find deeply relevant, and books that feel comforting. The limit for library materials at the SF library is 50, and I’m often close to, or at that limit.

That said, there are certain sorts of books I seek out when I’m working on a piece of writing, books that grapple with the kinds of issues I’m engaging with in the text, books that are good examples of craft around a particular craft concern I have, books that leave out the very kind of story I want to tell, books that remind me of the rules of a genre or the tastes of an editor I’m writing for, books that are attempting a similar project in some way. In short, books that a close read will teach me something as a writer, and that will nudge me to keep writing, either because of what’s missing or because of what’s there, or ideally both.

Right now one of my works in progress is a novel about trauma, desire, music, gender, disability and ghosts. I’m in the process of doing the reading that sparks the thinking I want to do about this story, and how I want to tell it.

As I read, I am doing some of the hard thinking that will shape this book of mine, considering questions about integrating spirituality and magic into a story that is rooted in the real, how to write a book about trauma that is accessible to survivors, what it means to decenter romantic narrative and still keep in the sex, ways to play with moving back and forth in time and still create a cohesive narrative, how to include bad sex and sexual trauma and hot consensual sex and kink all in the same book, ways to integrate music into a novel that bring it alive, what a story that is by us for us looks like, how to write about internalized oppression and balance that with strengths, resources, and resilience in the same characters.

Here are some of the books that have really gotten my juices flowing so far, in a range of directions. Interestingly, two thirds of these books are classified as young adult fiction. That’s not the genre this novel will be, but I am finding YA to be a great resource in this writing process.

This kind of reading feels very different from the work I did when I was younger, where I directly attempted to adopt the style of a particular writer (I was enamored of Thomas Pynchon, A.A. Milne, and Sandra Cisneros at various points). It’s not about writing like these folks, though many of them are very talented at their craft (otherwise their books would not be so compelling). It’s about letting the book teach me, engaging with it closely, with its craft and questions and challenges and elisions and gaps.

“To be a creative, innovative horror writer, you must read a lot of everything, and a lot of that everything must be horror. You may be thinking, ‘How can I be creative and original with all those other authors’ ideas floating around in my head?’ But this is critical: The sheer amount of material floating around in your head will prevent you from copying any one author. Instead you will find a tiny piece of character from this book, a tiny piece of plot from that book, a certain stylistic technique from that other, which you will combine into something totally new. It is the writer who reads only Stephen King who will turn out stories that sound like Stephen King – on a very, very bad day.” –Jeanne Cavelos

Reading feels very deeply like I am working on the novel (which is what I refer to it in my head, probably because it’s my first serious attempt at writing a novel), even when I’m not also doing much writing. I am doing the thinking that makes the writing possible and more deliberate, more what I need it to be. It is working on the book, even though that may be hard for others to discern or understand. Part of what I do when I engage with other writers is to ask what they are reading, and what they are learning from it, because I know we draw from what we read when we write.

What are you reading?


7 thoughts on “What do you read to spark your writing?

  1. Pingback: Sometimes you have to stop and write something else. | Kink Praxis

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  3. Seeley,

    In terms of the clear themes and characterization in this booklist: there are some themes around psych disability (that are not discussed in a disability context) in some of these books, and a few characters that are overtly marked as disabled, though sometimes it’s a metaphor for disability. And those things have sparked thoughts about disability for me.

    To get concrete, I have been wondering why it feels so good that the secondary character who is marked as disabled in If I Ever Get Out of Here is one of the main (and most solid and effective) support people for the kid getting bullied. I’ve been thinking about how to write fiction that illuminates some of what it means to be disabled and be a solid source of support for people we care about. I’ve also been wondering why I like that it’s not clear what his disabilities are (Is he developmentally disabled? Does he have combat PTSD? Does he have a traumatic brain injury? Is it some combination of those things? The reader never gets told.) I did really like that aspect of his characterization; it felt authentic that this particular teenage boy would not use technical terms or focus on the specifics of his uncle’s disability. It also felt good in a deeper way, that there didn’t need to be a detailed reveal/explanation, especially because disabled folks are pushed/required to explain explain explain so much about our disabilities, to folks we don’t want to, including strangers, institutions, family, partners, friends. I want to think more about ways that I want to mark disability in my work, including my novel project.

    That said, most of these are not books that center disability themes or have clearly marked disabled characters. But my engagement with the questions that these books have raised for me has been deeply about disability.

    When I think about what I can learn from (esp. from Nevada, Sub Rosa & The Summer We Got Free) about *by us for us* fiction, that is a question about disability representation. When I think about making a novel that tells stories about trauma and trauma survivors accessible to trauma survivors (a question I was particularly considering as I read Eleanor and Park, Dark Secret Love, The Summer We Got Free, Sub Rosa, Return to Me, If I Ever Get Out of Here, Nevada, Anna Dressed in Blood and Liar ), that is deeply about disability and access. When I think about writing fiction with an agenda in a nuanced and complex way that doesn’t feel like it pushes too hard but slowly reveals and lets readers discover (as I have been when reading The Summer Prince, Nevada, Return to Me, and The Summer We Got Free), that is about disability. And when I consider ways to write about internalized oppression that don’t sink under the weight of it but are buoyed by support and community and balanced within characters by internal resources and strengths (as I was thinking while reading The Summer We Got Free, If I Ever Get Out of Here, The Summer Prince, and Nevada), that is a question that is very much about disability for me.

    Those are more obvious questions that connect to disability in a straight clear line. But it’s more complex and spiral than that, as I think about this novel, particularly as a disabled writer with a central character that is disabled, in a story that centers disability, a novel that has a disability politic at it’s core. So, given that context, thinking about ways to integrate music into story structure and organization (as I was thinking as I read All Our Pretty Songs, Eleanor and Park, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, If I Ever Get Out of Here, and The Summer Prince) is very much a question about disability, for me. About access and coping, about passing and connection, about neurodiversity. That’s the framework I’m considering the question in, the place I’m coming from. And, thinking about ways to write about ghosts that integrate them into realistic fiction (as I considered when reading Anna Dressed in Blood, The Summer We Got Free, The Summer Prince, and All Our Pretty Songs) feels very much like a question that engages around disability and passing, about maintaining and othering, about wholeness and self-acceptance, about psych disability. Again, that’s because of the framework for considering the question, what ghosts are intended to do in my own work, how I understand them as a force in my character’s lives.

    So the short answer is yes, all of these questions are about disability, even if they don’t appear on their surface to be. But it is interesting to consider why I wrote this post in a way that doesn’t make that clear. I will think on that.


    • thanks, that’s all helpful to know. i asked b/c i’m also seeking texts that explicitly include disability issues for characters w/o the pathologizing narrative, esp. if they also reflect on queer experience.

      one thing i’m reading right now is Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, from 2001, a collection of essays dedicated to various gay artists who died and how their loss has impacted peers and larger culture. the early vulnerability of queer cis guys to aids, as narrated in creative literature, was perhaps the first thing which impressed and opened my consciousness to queers’ oppression and distinct reality. i was on summer vacation in ’92 when 16, and drawn to a copy of http://jamesreadsbooks.com/2014/02/18/the-irreversible-decline-of-eddie-socket/ –as a teen i wasn’t out queer or feeling much access to my sexuality period, but i could relate to being outsider and the empathy i had for these guys suffering was, i now realize, the first awareness i had connected to anyone’s experience ‘in the life.’ prior to that i knew queer folks existed, but wasn’t actively drawn into contemplating what queerness meant. now, i’ve lost at least two guys i personally connected with to aids, friends to violent death and family to terminal illness, and have engaged w/eras of queer art making and history, so reading these narratives of loss means something different. but they are something which have drawn me, incl. in theater and film, recurringly. now i’m reading to decide if i need to keep this book, to determine how many of these stories are important to keep with me.


      • Ah, you wanted recommendations. I don’t know of many novels that aren’t pathologizing. But I can name a few. I liked John Greens anti cancer book, The Fault in our Stars. In terms of psych disabilities, I liked Lockharts Ruby Oliver books, and remember enjoying Crescent Dragonwagons The Year it Rained when I was a teenager. That’s out of print but gettable on Smashwords. In terms of autism, I’ve heard that Marcelo in the Real World is good, but couldn’t bear to finish it, it hurt too much. I found Peggy Munsons novel very difficult trauma wise and also really hard to read in an access way while I was flaring, as it’s acid fiction, but I don’t think it’s pathologizing, though there’s a lot of internalized ableism in it. There’s a good amount of that in all the texts I named. I can’t recommend any books on physical disabilities, as I just haven’t found any novels that aren’t pathologizing.

        Most of the books I come back to as resources on disability are nonfiction. Nancy Mairs, Eli Clare, this book on autism called Martian in the Playground that was written by an autistic author who interviewed other autistic folks about their experiences at school. (One of the few books I’ve read on autism written by someone autistic.) I generally prefer memoirs, as they are at least written by disabled folks. Wish I had more books to recommend.


  4. Pingback: Save the date: panel on kink & disability 8/23 in SF | Kink Praxis

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