25 inspiring authors for writers

Which authors have inspired you to write, and keep writing?

December 12, 2013

The great endeavor of writing a novel, I have discovered, is equal parts exhilarating, exasperating, and exhausting. One day can bring a huge breakthrough, with ideas overflowing and fingers flying across the keyboard, while the next can amount to nothing more than a tiny black cursor blinking desperately on a blank page.
 
In these moments, I search for traces of kinship in the literary giants who came before me.
 
Did Hemingway ever struggle with writer's block when he was scribbling away in those Paris cafés? Did Salinger obsessively re-write sentences and anguish over syntax, too? Did Woolf realize her writing would continue to be read and cherished by women in the 21st century—that a lonely girl from Texas would pick up "A Room of One's Own" and yearn for the freedoms she described? 
 
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed is running a wonderful interview series on writers recalling and dissecting the books that have formed them, which prompted me to further examine which authors have had the most profound impact on my life.
 
When did I realize that I wanted to be a novelist? At first, I thought it must be around the time that I first read "To Kill A Mockingbird" (my first classic, age 8) or "Harry Potter" (my first serial obsession, age 11), but then remembered a host of other novels written by authors who still feel like old friends, though we've never met. 
 
Turns out, I have many to thank for shaping me into the writer that I am today.
 
In no particular order:
 
1. Zadie Smith. Most notable works: "White Teeth" (2000), "On Beauty" (2005), and "NW" (2013) 
"1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else. 2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would." — Smith, from her "10 Rules of Writing" published in the New York Times.
2. Gabriel García Márquez. Most notable works: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (1967) and "Love in the Time of Cholera" (1985)
"If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. Pablo Neruda has a line in a poem that says 'God help me from inventing when I sing.' It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality." — Márquez, interviewed for The Paris Review after winning the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature for "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
3. Nick Hornby. Most notable works: "Fever Pitch" (1992), "High Fidelity" (1995) and "About a Boy" (1998)
"One of the questions that is probably troubling you at the moment is this: How do I know whether I’m a writer? And the question can only be answered with another question: Well, do you write? If you don’t, you’re not. If you do, you are. There’s nothing else to it...Walk into a bookshop and you will see books that you love and books that you hate, books that were written in three weeks and books that took thirty years, books that were written under the influence of drugs and alcohol, books that were written in splendid isolation, books that were written in Starbucks. Some of them were written with enormous enjoyment, some for money, some in fear and loathing and despair. The only thing they all have in common—and actually there is the odd honourable exception even to this rule—is that their authors finished them, sooner or later." - Hornby, in an excerpt from his Pep Talk for National Novel Writing Month, 2013.  
4. Chuck Palahniuk. Most notable works: "Fight Club" (1996), "Survivor" (1999) and "Choke" (2001)
"Your audience is smarter than you imagine. Don't be afraid to experiment with story forms and time shifts. My personal theory is that younger readers disdain most books — not because those readers are dumber than past readers, but because today's reader is smarter. Movies have made us very sophisticated about storytelling. And your audience is much harder to shock than you can ever imagine." — Palahniuk, from his "Essays on Writing."
 
5. Joan Didion. Most notable works: "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (1968), "Play As It Lays" (1970) and "The Year of Magical Thinking" (2005)
"Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: I, I, I. In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space." — Didion, from "Why I Write" in the New York Times Book Review, 1976. 

6. Ernest Hemingway. Most notable works: "The Sun Also Rises" (1926), "A Farewell to Arms" (1929), "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1940) and "The Old Man and the Sea" (1952)

"The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you, so try to remember it."— Hemingway, in an October 1935 article about writing for Esquire.

7. J.D. Salinger. Most notable works: "Catcher in the Rye" (1951), "Nine Stories" (1953) and "Franny and Zooey" (1961)

"I have to know my character thoroughly before I start, and know how he’d act in every situation. If I am writing about Mr. Tidwinkle's golf game, I must also know how he would act when drunk, or at a bachelor dinner, or in the bathtub or in bed — and it must all be very real and ordinary." — Salinger, to journalist Shirley Ardman in New York, 1941

8. Mary Shelley. Most notable work: "Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus" (1818) 

"How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow." — Shelley, "Frankenstein" (written at age 19)  

9. George Orwell. Most notable works: "1984" (1949) and "Animal Farm" (1945)

"Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. Phrases such as toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, Achilles’ heel, swan song, and hotbed come to mind quickly and feel comforting and melodic. For this exact reason they must be avoided. Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images." — Orwell, from his 1946 essay,"Politics and the English Language."

10. Toni Morrison. Most notable works: "Beloved" (1987) and "Song of Solomon" (1977)

''I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time [doing it]." — Morrison, in an excerpt from her 1993 interview with The Paris Review.

11. Virginia Woolf. Most notable works: "Mrs. Dalloway" (1925), "To the Lighthouse"(1928) and "A Room of One's Own" (1929)

"When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” — Woolf, in an excerpt from "A Room of One's Own."

12. Dave Eggers. Most notable works: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"(2000) and "The Circle" (2013)

''And here is where I spend seven or eight hours at a stretch. Seven or eight hours each time I try to write. Most of that time is spent stalling, which means that for every seven or eight hours I spend pretending to write—sitting in the writing position, looking at a screen—I get, on average, one hour of actual work done. It’s a terrible, unconscionable ratio." — Eggers, from the 2010 article "Dave Egger's Writing Life," published in the Washington Post.

13. Mark Twain. Most notable works: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885) and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876)

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.'' — Twain, on how writing is re-writing.

14. Roald Dahl. Most notable works: "James and the Giant Peach" (1961), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (1964) and "Matilda"(1988)

"The prime function of the children’s book writer is to write a book that is so absorbing, exciting, funny, fast and beautiful that the child will fall in love with it. And that first love affair between the young child and the young book will lead hopefully to other loves for other books and when that happens the battle is probably won. The child will have found a crock of gold. He will also have gained something that will help to carry him most marvelously through the tangles of his later years." — Dahl on the power of children's books

15. Margaret Atwood. Most notable works: "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), "Cat's Eye,"(1988), "Blind Assassin" (2000) and "Oryx and Crake" (2003)

"Sometimes people are surprised that a woman would write such things. Bodily Harm, for instance, was perceived as some kind of incursion into a world that is supposed to be male. Certainly violence is more a part of my work than it is of Jane Austen’s, or George Eliot’s. They didn’t do it in those days. Charles Dickens wrote about Bill Sikes bludgeoning Nancy to death, getting blood all over everything, but if a woman had written that, nobody would have published it. Actually, I grew up violence-free and among people who were extremely civilized in their behavior. " — Atwood, on writing violence, from her 1990 interview for the The Paris Review.

16. Vladmir Nabokov. Most notable work: "Lolita" (1955)

"After waking up between six and seven in the morning, I write till ten-thirty, generally at a lectern which faces a bright corner of the room instead of the bright audiences of my professorial days. The first half- hour of relaxation is breakfast with my wife around eight-thirty... Around eleven, I soak for 20 minutes in a hot bath, with a sponge on my head and a wordsman’s worry in it, encroaching, alas, upon the nirvana. A stroll with my wife along the lake is followed by a frugal lunch and a two-hour nap, after which I resume my work until dinner at seven. An American friend gave us a Scrabble set in Cyrillic alphabet, manufactured in Newtown, Conn.; so we play skrebl for an hour or two after dinner. Then I read in bed— periodicals or one of the novels that proud publishers optimistically send us. Between eleven and midnight begins my usual fight with insomnia. Such are my habits in the cold season." — Nabokov, when asked how he works and relaxes in an 1968 interview with the New York Times

17. Richard Wright. Most notable works: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1938), "Native Son" (1940) and "Black Boy" (1945)

"Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness." — Wright, from "Black Boy."

18. Hunter S. Thompson. Most notable works: "Hell's Angels" (1967), "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1971) and "The Rum Diary" (1998)

"As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I'm not sure that I'm going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says 'you are nothing', I will be a writer." — Thompson, from "Gonzo."

19. Kurt Vonnegut. Most notable works: "Cat's Cradle" (1963), "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969) and "Breakfast of Champions" (1973)

" 1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. 3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. 4. Every sentence must do one of two things —reveal character or advance the action. 5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of."  — From Vonnegut's "8 Basics of Creative Writing" in the preface of his short story collection, "Bagombo Snuff Box."

20. Elie Wiesel. Most notable work: "Night" (1955) 

"Why do I write? Perhaps in order not to go mad. Or, on the contrary, to touch the bottom of madness...There are easier occupations, far more pleasant ones. But for the survivor, writing is not a profession, but an occupation, a duty. Camus calls it 'an honor.' As he puts it: 'I entered literature through worship.' Other writers have said they did so through anger, through love.  Speaking for myself, I would say — through silence." — Wiesel, in an excerpt from "Why I Write: Making No Become Yes."

21. Jack Keroauc. Most notable works: "On the Road"(1957) and "Big Sur" (1962)

"1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy, 2. Submissive to everything, open, listening, 3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house, 4. Be in love with yr life, 5. Something that you feel will find its own form." — Keroauc, from his 30 essentials in "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose."

22. Harper Lee. Most notable work: "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960)

"I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide." — Lee in Writer's Digest, September 1961. 

23. Stephen King. Most notable works: "Carrie" (1974), "The Shining" (1977) and "Misery" (1987)

"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling." King, from "On Writing."

24. John Steinbeck. Most notable works: "Of Mice and Men" (1937), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) and "East of Eden" (1952)

"Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material." — Steinbeck, from his "Six Tips on Writing" in the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review.

25. J.K. Rowling. Most notable works: the "Harry Potter" series (1997-2007)

"Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me...And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for awhile is just bliss." — Rowling, on living as a single mother on welfare before publishing the first "Harry Potter" book at age 32.

Honorable mentions: Marya Hornbacher, David Sedaris, the Brontë sisters, and the poets: Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Plath, Silverstein, Frost, Ginsberg, Yeats, Angelou, Emerson, and Wilde.

Which authors, poets, and essayists have inspired you?

Leah Pickett writes about art and popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @leahkpickett.