A little over a year ago, I read Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, which was published in 1934 but still feels timely. There are many things I appreciate about this book (and if you’d like you can access the full text of it here), but I especially love the frank and funny life advice Brande offers.
In one of my favorite parts, Brande insists that if you are serious about writing, you must structure your recreation time in a way that feeds your writing. That means that you can’t spend too much time with people who leave you feeling discouraged or creatively dried up, and you have to read things that stimulate your writing. She explains that she’s known people who are inspired to write after reading dry medical reports, scientific magazines they can’t understand, or novels they dislike, but who are paralyzed by reading the works of authors they admire. “Watch for a while,” she instructs, “and see which authors are your meat and which are your poison.” I suppose that advice doesn’t work so well for vegetarians, but you get the idea.
I’ve been thinking about my literary “meat” and “poison.” Recently, two novels spurred on my writing in a way that others haven’t, and they happened to be written by the same author. I was completely charged up to get back to work after reading Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour and Second Chance Summer. In both books, I saw Matson doing things I was trying to do, such as exposing a flaw that the main character has to overcome and showing how two people come to know and care about each other in a short time. Seeing how Matson accomplished these things gave me these zinging realizations about how I could accomplish them in my book. Plot-wise, I’ve found myself psyched up to write after reading Kate Messner’s middle grade novels The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. and Sugar and Ice because I get this sense that Messner doesn’t get in her own way—she sets up a dynamic situation and lets it unfold, and that makes the process of structuring a novel feel manageable to me.
(The only problem is, if I let myself think about how Messner has been able to teach middle school English, be a parent, keep a blog going, and crank out book after book, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and inadequate, and she becomes my poison instead of my meat. So I am excited to read her new book Capture the Flag, but I will be sure to read it when I am feeling especially secure.)
How about you? Which authors are your meat and which are your poison?
Great question, Laurie! I tend to stick around the YA world, so my meat are people like MT Anderson, AM Jenkins, John Green, and Libba Bray. On the poison side, I find that any book that makes me jealous or resentful in the “How did THAT get published???” way just drag me down and hinder productivity. It’s an interesting question, to wonder if a particular book is building you up or breaking you down.
I’m so with you! There are authors whose books I love (Maggie Stiefvater for example) but I sometimes allow myself to feel discouraged by them rather than inspired because I’m overwhelmed by all that they’d accomplished while juggling many balls. (And in my case, I also notice how much they’ve done at a much younger age than mine.) Thanks for the honesty!