A while back, inspired by my friend Annie’s DIY MFA, I set some similar intentions and began to fashion my own ‘do-it-myself’ writing program.
I came across Gabriela Pereira’s DIY MFA and (eventually) became (reluctantly, cynically) open to creating an Essential Reading List that represents the area of writing I want to focus on.
In my case, my much-neglected Post Office Book.
The Essential Reading List
This exercise is for writers who are actively working on a writing project and are trying to figure out how their own work fits within the existing body of literature. The point is that writers who are seriously focusing on a work-in-progress should not be reading at random, but choosing books that serve a specific and concrete function related to their own work.
Pereira identifies four types of books that should go on your essential-reading list:
- Competitive Books, or your novel’s closest competition. The purpose in reading books in this category is to know what else is out there and figure out how your work-in-progress compares or can stand out.
Now, I’m not naive–I understand the competitive nature of the publishing industry. But the word connotes a sense of rivalry that I simply don’t relate to. The word ‘comparable’ is less…uh…icky…to me and fits within the scope of this category, so that’s the term I’ll use going forward.
- Contextual Books, which are thematically similar to your WIP but not necessarily in the same genre or age group. This is also where you put any research books you will need to read when writing your book.
- Contemporary Books, to maintain awareness of what’s new in the genre you’re writing in.
- Classics, which is a super broad category and will be different for each reader.
Why the Reluctance and Cynicism?
Well, to begin with, I’m Irish, so cynicism is an (unfortunate/wonderful) epigenetic trait. I was simply born this way. Like Lady Gaga.
My day job in the legal department of a large national mortgage company is all rules and regulations, compliance and conformity.
Reading is escapism: not only in the way that reading-as-escapism is generally understood but–for me–an escape from rules and formulas, rigid criteria and inflexible prescriptions.
My reading life is a rare instance for chance and serendipity, for making impulsive, whimsical, arbitrary–even freaky–decisions. I’m reluctant to forgo fate and fancy for competition and context.
Fate and fancy are luscious, toothsome words. Competition is ugly and sticks in the craw. Essential-List-Making feels constrictive and deterministic and, honestly, like a lot of fookin’ work.
It sort of makes sense. In the way that, when I’m at work and working it, all the rules and policies and procedures of that particular industry (i.e., language-game) make sense and prevent the company and its employees from falling into chaos and precarity.
“Okay…,” I said, after grumbling for a long while.
“Whatever, forever…. I’ll give it a whirl….”Me, early January
Identifying books within the ‘comparable’ category was a real head-scratcher, and I don’t think I did it right. That is: I don’t think it is possible for me to do it at this point in time.
Competitive or comparable books are in the same genre as your work and deal in similar themes or subject matter.
My Work in Progress: AKA “The Post Office Book”
My work-in-progress is barely that.
In fact, my WIP is actually: an unfinished short story; two or three half-written, unrelated scenes; some super scant character sketches; and tens of thousands of words in guilty journal entries about my lack of progress on my work-in-progress.
In short: it’s far too early to delve too deeply into comparison and competition. Given the nascent, barely-there nature of it all, I can only say which ideas, themes or subject matter I’m (currently) curious to follow and explore. To wit:
- Anything–anything at all–to do with the United States Post Office! History and anecdotes, legend and lore. Letter-writing, rare stamps, mail art and postal ephemera.
- The unled life. What happens when an intrinsic, identity-bound ambition, hope or dream you had for yourself fails to materialize–especially something you were absolutely certain was going to happen, even better if it was prophesied in some way.
- What happens in a marriage (or similarly intimate relationship) when one person changes in some sort of fundamental and unexpected way, especially when one person begins to believe in conspiracy theories or following fringe groups.
- Flawed super heroes. Or how the idea of the super hero is inherently flawed, dangerous, distracting, and harmful.
- The power of language. How words construct and shape reality/realities.
- Poetry. Poets. Poetic thinking.
- Vampires, of course LOL.
If you have recommendations (preferably published in the last five years) that explore some of the above themes or subject matter, I would love to hear from you!
How I Created My Comparable Reading List
In the book DIY MFA, Pereira provides quite detailed advice on how to structure, track, and gather data around your evolving writing practice.
No such luck when it comes to direction on curating a “Read With Purpose” reading list. The ‘reading’ section of the book is slender and sparse on practical instruction: some far better resources on the topic are:
- Reading Like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
- First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson Jr.
- How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
- How Fiction Works by James Wood
With no other/better methodology to borrow, I basically:
- Scanned a whole lotta year-end “best of” reading lists and noted any that seemed thematically comparable to my own work-in-progress. I limited my search to the last three years and that was plenty.
- Searched “Best Genre-Blending Novels” and “Slipstream Stories/Novels” as it looks like mine is leaning that way. Exciting! Daunting!
- Scoured my bookshelves (both my actual bookshelves at home and my virtual Goodreads shelves) for (a) books I haven’t read yet but was obviously drawn to for a reason, and (b) books I’ve already read – and, more importantly, loved – that relate to my own thematically, tonally, or even those that have structures I’m interested in exploring/emulating.
- Browsed on Book Browse! This new-to-me platform allows members to search for books by genre, setting, time-period and themes. It also has a “Read-Alike” search function that helps you find books or authors that are similar to your faves.
It must be noted that this supposedly focussing exercise devolved into a rabbit-hole-like existential crisis when I realized that most of the books I have loved or am drawn towards are not in any way comparable to what I’m writing. I once published a short story that I don’t really like and am not super stoked is out there in the world. I genuinely worry that I will write a novel that I would never ever dream of reading….
But I’ll worry about that later….
For now, this is my short and tentative list of ‘competitive’ or ‘comparable’ books for the coming year.
2022 DIY MFA ‘Comparable’ Reads
- Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru
- Weather, by Jenny Offill
- Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony
- The Heavens, by Sandra Newman
- American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson
- Days of Distraction, by Alexandra Chang
- Hollow, by Owen Egerton
- The Sentence, by Louise Erdich
- The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki
- Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
- To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara
- Anthem, by Noah Hawley
Contextual books are thematically similar to your WIP but not necessarily in the same genre or age group. This is also where you put any research books you will need to read when writing your book.
This was easy. A little too easy. Easy to compile the list (and there are dozens more I could add), but…
But, there’s no hella way I’m reading all of these books in 2022!
I, for better and worse, am not in a full-time MFA program. My time is better spent writing than reading. I get the purpose of compiling a reading list, but there’s a lot of potential for procrastination and avoidance here.
Still. This was a valuable and invigorating exercise as it reminded me of things that originally excited me when I realized a short story I had written had greater potential as a novel. More than the competitive/comparison category, creating this list made me feel like I was choosing books that serve a specific and concrete function related to my own work.
- How the Post Office Created America: a History, by Winifred Gallagher
- There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality, by Philip F. Rubio
- Dead Letters: an Anthology of the Undelivered, the Missing & the Returned, ed. by Conrad Williams
- A is For American: Letters and Characters in the Newly United States, by Jill Lepore
- Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, by Jack N. Rakove
- What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, by Adrienne Rich
- Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, by Jane Hirshfield
- American Originality: Essays on Poetry, by Louise Glück
- The Will to Change, by Adrienne Rich
- Slayer Slang: a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, by Michael Adams
- The Heroine with 1001 Faces, by Maria Tatar
- Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell
- Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata
- The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black
- Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
- The Poet X, by Elizbeth Acevedo
- Remote Control, by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor
- Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
- Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr.
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry
- The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin
- A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King
- Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman
- Circe, by Madeline Miller
- On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, by Andrew H. Miller
- The Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, by The Care Collective
Pereira advises reading contemporary books while working on your own to maintain awareness of what’s new in the genre you’re writing in.
I didn’t overthink this category too much and just added a couple of recent releases I gifted myself at Christmas:
- Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott (loving it!)
- Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim (so excited to start this!)
As always, I’ll be supporting my local bookshop and as many new authors as I can. So I’m sure some fate and fancy, whim and whimsy will come my way in the coming months.
Classics is a super broad category and will be different for each reader.
Again, I didn’t overthink this category. My novel’s protagonist is a vampire slayer and quite the quixotic character (or at least she used to be), so I just picked two classics I’ve been meaning to read forever and called it a day!
- Don Quixote, by Cervantes (Edith Grossman translation)
- Interview With the Vampire, by Anne Rice
This ‘short’ list includes an epically long novel so, given the length of the rest of my reading list, I’m feeling exceedingly idealistic and unrealistic myself, which is apt.
I’m also feeling quite excited and motivated.
Compiling an Essential Reading List creates the effect of having an assigned MFA syllabus to prioritize and dedicate myself to.
Yes, it’s a syllabus of my own creation, not an esteemed and erudite professor. But it was a fun afternoon and I can always change things up throughout the year.
After all, it’s my DIY MFA.