7 Books I Revisit When I Have Writer’s Block

I’ve had some pretty soul-sucking writer’s block for about a month now. I’ll sit down to write, no words will come, and eventually I’ll give up and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my couch and hate myself. This means, for about a month, a bunch of my fictional characters have been stranded in the middle of a scene. They’re stuck in an Eat N’ Park in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Their breakfast food has just arrived at their table, and they have yet to take a single bite. They’ve been starving at a table full of bacon and pancakes for over a month! Their food is cold! Their waiter’s shift is over! The poor guy never got tipped! And it’s my fault! Because I, the God of their Universe, cannot decide how they will proceed with their morning meal. That’s writer’s block. Just abandoning your characters in a diner in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, like some terrible mother in a Lifetime movie.


So when I’m stuck like this, I like to revisit stories and poems that inspire me. I reread them so often, my copies are all heavily underlined, battered, and dog-eared. I even found an old creased train ticket to Munich in one of them. Check them out, get inspired, and then please, for the love of You, go save your characters from that booth in Eat N’ Park.


1. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros


The House on Mango Street book cover

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You may have read this book in high school. I didn’t, but if you were lucky, you might’ve. It’s about a Latina girl, Esperanza, growing up in Chicago. Her voice is strong and witty and vibrant as she describes her life– her family, her neighborhood, her classmates– in poetic and strange ways:


Darius, who chases girls with firecrackers or a stick that touched a rat and thinks he’s tough, today pointed up because the world was full of clouds, the kind like pillows. You see that cloud, that fat one there? Darius said, See that? Where? That one next to the one that look like popcorn.That one there. See that. That’s God, Darius said. God? somebody little asked. God, he said, and made it simple.


Every chapter is short and brilliant yet simple, which is perfect if you need a quick burst of inspiration.


2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Book Cover for Vampires in the Lemon Grove

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This is a short story collection full of myths and monsters. In fact, Karen Russell actually signed a copy of this book for me, “Enjoy this monster mash!” Russell is the queen of magical realism and gorgeous prose. In the title story, a vampire couple moves to a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy. While there, they make a strange discovery: sinking their fangs into the skins of lemons is an oddly satisfying substitution for sucking human blood. 


There is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling– a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums– a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain.


Every story is like this– a sort of thought experiment, launching mythical creatures into our ordinary world. If you want to take your imagination for a spin, definitely pick up a short story collection by Russell.


3. The Wish Book by Alex Lemon


Book Cover for The Wish Book by Alex Lemon

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This is the book I apparently took to Munich. It makes sense, because it’s a pretty thin book of poems, the perfect size for traveling. But don’t let it’s size fool you– this is not a quick read. Every poem deserves to be dissected and reread and read aloud. This collection is about life and death. It’s all at once inspiring, hilarious, confusing, and just plain weird. And I love it to Munich and back. To give you and idea of the range of poems in this book, one begins, “It’s hard to imagine a day/ When I’m not scratching/ my nuts right at God.” Another proclaims, “This fevered life: illness & love/ Lockjaw & slow-motion kidnappings– it is what/ It always is– chronic dying, shivering with/ Unbelievable joy & not knowing a damn thing/ About anything as lightning/ Jigsaws the horizon.” Right? Like some days we’re scratching our nuts right at God and some days we’re shivering with unbelievable joy! We can truly have it all!


4. This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki


This One Summer book cover

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This is a graphic novel that truly made me ache the first time I read it. I ached with inexplicable nostalgia– for summer, for childhood, for old female friends I grew up with and inevitably grew apart from. This book is the perfect snapshot of growing up as an adolescent girl. It’s about two friends, Rose and Windy, who see one another every summer, all summer, at their summer homes in Awago Beach. But somehow, this summer in particular feels different. If you’re feeling stuck and looking for ideas, this book will trigger memories perfect for a memoir essay or some young adult writing.


5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides


The Virgin Suicides book cover

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This book is beautiful and haunting in a number of ways, but my favorite thing about it is the voice. The novel is told from the perspective of a group of teenage boys. This is called a ‘collective voice’– when no single character is ever identified as the narrator. Together, the collective voice of the boys tell the story of the Lisbon sisters– five teenage girls who live in their town and, eventually, each take their own life. It’s sad for obvious reasons, but it’s also thoughtful, darkly funny, and gorgeously written.


We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.


If you want to revamp your writing, take after Eugenides and try to write a story using collective voice.


6. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer


Everything is Illuminated book cover

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I think this book is too good for me to describe properly. It’s sort of like two books in one, or a story within a story. So there’s the main character, Jonathan, a Jewish American man who travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. She saved him in a small town in Poland called Trachimbrod. The other story is the story of Trachimbrod itself– the people who lived there, and the strange and beautiful lives they led. Personally, the tales from Trachimbrod are the ones that fascinated and inspire me the most, for example:


The time of dyed hands began when the baker of rolls Herzog J observed that those rolls that were not watched with a cautious eye would sometimes disappear… At this point in our history, the Eminent Rabbi Fagel F was chief executor of legal regulation. So as to conduct a fair investigation, he saw to it that everyone in the shtetl was treated like a suspect, guilty until proven otherwise. WE WILL DYE THE HANDS OF EACH CITIZEN WITH A DIFFERENT COLOR, he said, AND WILL THIS WAY DISCOVER WHO HAS BEEN PUTTING THEIRS BEHIND HERZOG’S COUNTER.


Honestly, no concise quote could really capture how good this book is.


7. On Not Writing by Charlotte Holmes


Okay, I’m super biased because Holmes was my writing professor at Penn State and I’m obsessed with her. She’s the author of this beautiful collection called The Grass Labyrinth and she’s just a lovely, inspiring human being in general. Her essay, ‘On Not Writing,’ is about the weird awfulness of writer’s block, and how, no matter how permanent it feels, it always evaporates with time.


But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull. 



Featured Image Via Choose To Be Nice