5 Books That Formed Me As a Writer

I love reading the books my friends say helped form them, as either writers or people. Just recently in fact I read a friend’s ‘most favorite book of all time’ and was stunned by how similar it was to my friend’s current work, in terms of theme and style. Like looking at a child and then seeing their parent’s picture at the same age. It was a very, very good book, for the record, and I think if I’d read it when I was younger it would have had a strong impact on me, too. Clearly that book spoke to something inside my friend, showed her what rang true for herself, and had been a touchstone since that time as she developed as a writer.

Sometimes books act as our mentors, our guides. Sometimes they’re the distant point on the horizon we want to reach one day. I thought it might be fun to talk about the books that formed us, and of course since this is my post I’ll go first :)

Lanterns and Lances

My 8th grade English teacher had this book in her personal library from which students were allowed to borrow, but after reading this one I never returned it (sorry Mrs. Koonz!). James Thurber showed me what it was to play with language, and provided my first inkling into the minds of other writers. This book made me fall in love with my craft — not just with the work itself, but in discussing, sharing, and analyzing writing. I remember my chest aching with laughter and swelling with pride as I read this book, because James Thurber made writing hilarious and self-righteous and brilliant. It was just what I needed in a time when I felt so alone as a writer.

Beloved

This book came from that same English teacher’s library. Beloved introduced me to Toni Morrison, and became the standard of beauty against which I measure all my works. The combination of lyricism, tragedy, and horror left a deep mark on me. This was the first book that made me ache, that taught me what it was to ache for a story. I have tried to give my stories the same ache ever since.

For a book that looms so large in my mind, I realized after writing this post that Beloved actually has the shortest description. I guess I just want to say it’s probably the most important book to me on this list and my brevity in discussing it is not from lack of love, but probably inability to describe just how intensely I feel about it. This was the one that started everything, that made me think, ‘I want to write like that.’

Rant

Rant was the first Chuck Palahniuk book I read — yes, even before Fight Club. The Assistant Manager of the store I was working at was reading it, and found it utterly strange and incomprehensible. I borrowed her copy and consumed it.

Rant is, in my opinion, Palahniuk’s best book, and one of the best books I’ve ever read. No book has haunted me more than this weird, time-traveling, venom-addicting, car crashing, futuristic entertainment jacking, absolute heartbreaker of a book. Beloved inspired me; Rant haunted me. Rant is complicated and multi-layered, and I had to read it about five times before I really understood what was going on, and honestly I’m sure there are parts I’m still missing. I don’t desire to write like Palahniuk, but I strive to attain this level of awesome. Every day since I read Rant has been a day spent in waiting for the sequel to appear. I hope to one day have as unique ideas as appeared in Rant’s pages.

The Silence of the Lambs

The name can be intimidating, I know. Of course the movie captured me first, at an age when I was probably too young to watch it. The first time I read the book I felt like I was savoring pulling apart the petals of a fresh rose. Or undressing a mannequin swathed in couture. Or tasting, bite by bite, the most delicious, thousand-dollars-a-slice hot fudge cake there ever was. Harris wrote an amazingly descriptive and yet cuttingly sparse work that was, to me, a thing of minimalist beauty to behold. His blend of stark language and poetry (how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death?) taught me how emotions can be communicated by the stakes involved, not adverbs. I remember dialogue Clarice must have screamed, every nerve aflare and all her convictions quivering, that he left on the page with not even an exclamation point. The power of that communication shook me, and I aspire to that level of telepathy.

Furthermore, I have never had such a transportive moment as when I read this line from Red Dragon: “Francis sat silent at his place, opening and closing his hand on the memory of an eye blinking against his palm.” Perhaps it was growing up on a farm and knowing what that chicken blink felt like, but Harris took me away in that moment, and I’ve always remembered.

What exactly I took from Silence of the Lambs outside of these specific examples is hard to communicate. Originality, perhaps. Maybe motif, or mixing soft and hard. A touch of psychological horror, so much more real and dangerous than the fantastical horrors of Stephen King. King shows us the fears of our subconscious. Harris showed me the fear in my conscious mind.

Finnikin of the Rock

This is honestly an odd choice for this list, and I’ll tell you why: I read it just a few years ago. The other books I read before I had an agent, when I was still in my early formative years as a writer. Finnikin was the first book I read as a mostly-formed writer that changed how I viewed my writing. Finnikin showed me how to build passion, and how to demonstrate the closeness of family in ways I’d never seen before. It definitely threw down a gauntlet I’ve been working towards matching ever since.

Later came Melina’s other work, and then Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, which showed me most clearly what I desired my own writing to be like. But these five books… these five listed above are the ones whose ingredients can be tasted most strongly in the stew of my own work.

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What books formed you, as either a reader or a writer? Careful, I may read them and then know all your secrets :-)

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