Which Writers Inspire You?

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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s likely to fall flat when extended to emulating a favorite author’s writing style. That said, studying one’s favorite writers for inspiration can be productive.

I would never attempt to copy the writing style of Patrick O’Brian, whose gifts I discussed in this post. In his series of seafaring novels, he effectively flavors his prose with a slightly mannered, old-fashioned tone, defying the odds in his imitative gamble, but I wouldn’t try to piggyback on his success.

I am intrigued, however, by how he often omits narrative that would describe what in the acting profession is called business: walking, pouring a drink, puttering about while waiting for another person’s arrival, and so on. For example, he often offhandedly has a speaking character refer to another person’s actions so that the minor character needn’t make a superfluous remark to signal his or her presence.

O’Brian doesn’t use this technique consistently; he often describes events and actions as thoroughly as any other writer, but at times, he opts to let a character’s comments take care of business, or even ignores it altogether. I’d like to try that sometime.

Another writer I admire is Bill Bryson, a master of informative but humorous nonfiction, whose trademark style includes a droll exaggeration and an exuberant delight in discovery. Again, I wouldn’t dare to try to echo his voice, but Bryson’s impish tone reminds me that, sober or silly, writing — as well as reading — should be entertaining.

Also for nonfiction writers, I recommend two entire subgenres: One, which I call (for want of knowledge of any official designation) inanimate biography, explores the natural and cultural history of a single life-form or substance or product or concept.

The earliest specimen I know of representing this type of book, which flourished around the turn of the last century, is Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. Laugh all you want — Cod? That’s a sexy subject! — and then read it. (Kurlansky also wrote the definitive biography of salt, and in a later book he chronicled the history of nonviolence.)

Just when I think everything’s been written about, I see a new inanimate biography on a bookstore or library bookshelf, and there are plenty of topics waiting for their turn in the literary limelight. This type of treatment, in more concise form, is ideal for magazine articles and blog posts, too.

Another inspirational nonfiction category is that — also unnamed, as far as I know — of the historical treatise rendered more entertaining as a result of frequent asides or anecdotes. I’m a history buff, and I like scientific history as well as political and social history, but many books in these areas desiccate what should be an invigorating topic.

However, books like Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code make an educational experience tasty as well as nutritious. (Many similar books exist to inform and inspire you; this is just the one I read most recently.) Search out books in this vein to encourage your own writing.

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15 thoughts on “Which Writers Inspire You?”

  1. John Mcphee is a nonfiction writer who inspires me. I especially love the books like Control of Nature, Encounters with the Archdruid and Rising from the Plains where he weaves natural history with biography.

  2. i like your “inanimate biography” coinage.

    i found Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” very inspirational. i believe he was the first literary activist and the first magic realist. i am fascinated by his way of describing the ambivalence of human experience. over 2000 years later he is still unbeatable in so many ways.

  3. I’ll certainly take a look at both Patrick O’Brian (how could I ignore another Irishman?) and Bill Bryson, whose description as “informative but humorous” (Why “but”? Are the terms usually cross-cancelling? Can’t one be “informative AND humorous”?) is certainly intriguing. For my part, I recommend John Barth, particularly “The Sot-Weed Factor,” “Giles, Goat-Boy,” and “Lost in the Funhouse” (short stories).

  4. High on any list of ‘inanimate biography” must be “Oranges,” John McPhee’s third book, 1967. A benchmark of reporting, synthesis, ear, structure, tone, etc. (in other words, McPhee).

  5. Many writers inspire me and that’s not always a good thing. When I’m reading Hemingway, Cheever, Bryson, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut and other writers with strong personal voices I like and admire, my prose takes on some of their characteristics, but without the quality. If I were ever going to write something I’d have to stop reading, other than to keep up with the news. The one book that inspires me most is The Elements of Style. E.B. White’s approach to writing is that it’s something any reasonably intelligent person willing to learn its rules and work hard can do, and that it can even be a pleasant way to spend one’s time.

  6. OMG, I can’t imagine sinking my teeth into a book about cod! I mean, we are talking gefilte fish here LOL!! As sexy as your grandma who still makes it from scratch…but now you’ve whet my appetite and I might have to read it; at worst, it will while away some time as I pedal to nowhere on my elliptical.
    The first writer I thought of when you mentioned emulating someone’s style was Dave Barry. We are talking empty-your-bladder-first before reading his pieces. He will write a few sentences and then come to a screeching non sequitur that makes your racing brain slam into the inside your skull. At least, that’s what it feels like LOL

  7. The first writer I fell in love with was Paul Gallico, and then his contemporary, Neville Shute Norway. As as reader, I want to be wooed, and slowly drawn into the narrative. Now I try to write with a story-teller’s gait, too. (Scheherazade—that girl knew what she was doing.)

  8. I left a comment very early this morning—earlier than any of the above comments—but the blogger seems to have disagreed with it to such an extent that he deleted it. I hadn’t realized that comments were subject to despotic censorship. I’ll try to suck up from now on.

  9. Matt:

    I do not own this site; I am a contractor, and I have nothing to do with the site’s comments function. (I go through the same process to submit comments as you do.)

    There are valid reasons for site administrators to delete comments. You are welcome to write directly to the webmaster to find out why yours was deleted.

  10. I find that my favorite authors write Young Adult fiction. Swati Avashti, S.E Hinton, Heidi Ayarbe, they each have a particular sense of honesty and compassion, giving you a window into the character’s soul. They seem to capture you from the very beginning with this honesty and that is the way I want to effect my own readers, and write with that same sense of honesty. I think that is important for any writer to create a good story. It is so inspirational and keeps readers attention, making them turn page after page without wanting to stop.

  11. As a 16 year-old writer of YA fiction myself, the Printz-award-winning John Green is my ultimate inspiration. His characters are intelligent and sarcastic–and very easily loved. He’s able to write with believable eloquence when his teenage characters narrating the story. Many people have gone on about how teenagers aren’t as smart as he makes them out to be, but I love what he believes in teenage intelligence and the practice of not writing down to his audience. His stories are moving; they are not only entertaining, but they get the reader to look at their view of what it means to be alive, love, friendship, what have you. I hope to one day have my books share a shelf with his at the bookshop.

    I highly encourage both teens and adults to check out John Green’s work for an entertaining, eloquent, and emotional read!

  12. Matt Gaffney: I too loved John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. I loved it so much that I read it about 4 or 5 times. What is so wonderful about Barth is that in this one book he takes on the narrative voice of so many people, including John Smith’s, Pocahontas, and many of the characters that lived around that era. Barth wrote such a masterpiece that, although it is a rather long book, it reads like a magazine article and is at once both entertaining and informative. He wraps history in his fiction, using actual events to fashion his story. It is a magnificent book, and everyone who writes or enjoys reading should without doubt put it on his or her list of required reading.

  13. Several, actually:

    Stephen King, whose “‘Salem’s Lot” sent delicious shivers up my back, is really the inspiration that got me writing horror fiction.

    Robert W. Service’s storytelling poems were a big inspiration for me (as were the folk singers and C&W songs I grew up with) in my poetry and using that form to tell stories.

    But I have to credit Marvel and DC comics for teaching me to choose THE PERFECT word to evoke a feeling in my reader (as well as for expanding my vocabulary far beyond my years in school).

    I’d also like to commend the authors of the x-rated novels I devoured as a youth, but considering the names displayed on the covers (Mike Coxsman, Dick Long, etc.) were almost certainly faked I have to just thank them as a group for teaching me to write erotic stories that incite heightened body temperature, sweaty skin, and racing pulses.

  14. Hi,
    Honestly speaking, to follow a great writer is really tough. Everyone has their own style to tell their speaches But it is true , good writing inspires to write good. I want to share my experience with all of you. As a Benagli speaking guy, tried follow some good writing in Benagali and tried in writing with the same language. Don’t know , but stiil my level is very poor , very weak. Then thought , I have to tell my speeches in my own way and now my lebel is quitr up to the mark.
    Still needs hard work. Now i am trying to learn some basic English
    and want to write.I know it will tough to master this language but am positive and belive after sometimes i will be with some shape.

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