10 Novels to Read for Creative Inspiration
Every creative person has times when they feel blocked, unable to silence the critic inside. There are proven ways to combat this, and many have to do with getting out of your own head, such as meditation, travel, taking a class, or talking to a therapist or good friend. But perhaps the most accessible source of inspiration, guaranteed to transport you out of your mental doldrums, is a good book.
There are plenty of books that tell you how to boost your creativity, but there’s nothing like a novel to show rather than tell you how it’s done. Here are ten thrilling tales bursting with imagination and hope that will be sure to restart your creative engines.
1. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
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“The real reality is something we create every moment of every day, that realities spin off from our decisions in every second we’ve alive.”
In a post-apocalyptic city destroyed by a proliferation of biotechnology, the only living humans are scavengers and mutants, who fight among themselves for the few remaining resources. More things are likely to kill you than not, and most likely of all is a flying grizzly bear the size of the Statue of Liberty, in whose fur, unfortunately, lies many of the treasures that will keep you alive. It is here that the protagonist Rachel finds the eponymous Borne, a multi-colored enigma that reminds her of the sea anemones of her childhood; against the warnings of her partner Wick that the strange thing could be more than it seemed, she takes it into her home and names it Borne. Over the course of the book, Borne becomes more and more sentient, threatening to upset Rachel and Wick’s already precarious life, and ultimately revealing the true cause of the city’s destruction.
WIth its beautiful, smooth writing and unique ideas, Borne has a lot to offer readers looking for inspiration, particularly if your imagination is failing you. Fantastical goodies abound: biotech bugs that can assess wounds and cure them, attack enemies, light your house, etc. At its heart, however, lies the hilarious and heartbreaking parent-child relationship that develops between Rachel and Borne, asking the reader to meditate on questions that we all face: what does it mean to be a person? What wouldn’t a parent do for their child, even when that child is dangerous? How do we go on living when everything we believe about our life turns out to be lie?
If you find yourself in a place in life that feels insurmountable, if you’re starting over, facing a hard decision, or just need something to jar you out of a rut, Borne will remind you: there’s power in letting go of the past; a small act of kindness can change everything; and your relationships, no matter how strange they might look to others, provide support and inspiration when you need it most.
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
“We traveled so far and your friendship meant everything. It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid.”
What is it about post-apocalyptic settings that can be so inspiring? Perhaps it is because they remind us of everything we still have to lose. In Station Eleven, 99% of the world’s population has been decimated by illness; those who remain huddle in makeshift villages at the mercy of cultish leaders, or else wander on foot between empty cities. The latter includes a band of actors and musicians who form the Traveling Symphony. They circuit a small area in the Great Lakes region of the US, performing Shakespeare and playing their instruments, with the goal of keeping the arts alive and to elevate life above the grim bid for survival it has become.
Several linked characters take turns carrying the plot. Central to the story is another art project: for years before the end of the world, one of the main characters worked intermittently on a graphic novel of sorts, which she called Station Eleven, about a civilization trapped in a scientific outpost under the ocean. Miraculously, this artwork survives, passing through the hands of the other characters at various points in the novel, becoming a touchstone for each, a piece of home that exists nowhere else. The nostalgia it evokes invigorates some and maddens others, but impresses everyone with the weight of all they’ve lost. The artist of Station Eleven never learned that anyone other than her lover saw her work; in fact, only a handful ever did, but it shaped the course of all the survivors left on Earth. Likewise, the Symphony played for a few hundred people at most, but their collective effort did more to restore the memories of home than any of the relics of technology they picked up as mementos along the way.
If you’re struggling in the middle of a project or career, feeling faceless and unrecognized, think on Station Eleven. If even one person is touched by your work, you have succeeded. The reward for a true artist lies not in achieving great fame, but in the work itself.
3. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
“…what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”
This book may seem like an odd addition to the list, as Reading Lolita in Tehran is not a novel but a memoir. However, it has much inspiration to offer, and it’s told using other novels as a frame. In the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1990’s, amid a rising tide of fundamentalism, literature professor Azar Nafisi began teaching seven of her brightest students, all women, in her home in secret. Nafisi used the books that they read throughout the memoir to parallel the stories of her students’ and her struggle to continue their studies, in the face of censorship and the danger of imprisonment – and worse – if they were discovered reading banned Western novels.
It is in part because of the repressive world in which the women live that they were able to put aside their differences – conservative and progressive, shy and outgoing alike – to learn from and enjoy the literature, in spite of the personal costs. One student was taken and flogged; the professor herself was forced to resign from three universities. Set against the backdrop of such oppression, the novels they read take on new meaning for the reader: they stand for dreams and the fight against tyranny.
For anyone living in a place where people are free to do what they like – to work, to date, to pursue an education – Reading Lolita in Tehran is a timely reminder that the arts are more than just a pleasant pastime. That art, written or otherwise, and the pursuit of it, can also be a courageous statement, as well as both an escape from reality and a pathway to understanding it. If you ever feel that your passion projects aren’t worth the effort, remember this book. To fight for something makes it precious.
4. The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve:
the fear of failure.”
The Alchemist’s message is clear from the outset: if you wish to achieve your dreams, you must be prepared to follow them for as long as it takes, no matter how many obstacles life puts in your path. Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, has a dream of traveling to the pyramids of Egypt and finding treasure, an allegory for discovering one’s life calling. He sells his sheep to pay for his travels and meets many people on his journey; some steal from him or otherwise delay him, while others offer him help and wisdom, the most important being the titular character, the alchemist.
Coelho uses the alchemist to deliver the most complex themes in the novel. The alchemist tells Santiago that he must have courage to follow his dreams, no matter what he must leave behind in order to do so, and in spite of the pain it will cause him. There is no map to or guarantee of success, because it looks different for everyone.
If you find yourself afraid of applying for a new job, moving to a different place, starting a new project, or perhaps you despair of finishing, unable to see the end, The Alchemist reminds us that dreams are deeper than their resolution, and that the act of creation itself outweighs fame and fortune.
5. The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
“The past stands in the path of the future, knowing it will be crushed.”
For Palmares Tres, a pyramid-shaped city in far-future Brazil, a strange ritual determines who governs: every five years, the people elect a king to reign for one year beside their queen. At the end of the summer, the queen slits the king’s throat, and as he dies, he chooses the next queen by marking her in his blood. The book centers on June Costa, an ambitious young graffiti artist, and Enki, the latest elected Summer King, who work together to create the boldest art the city has ever seen, while racing against the clock to end the centuries-old cycle of violence.
Creatives of every discipline will find their pursuits lovingly rendered here, from visual artists and musicians to programmers, architects, dancers, culinary explorers and more. The world of the Summer Prince is a patchwork of Brazilian flavor and imaginative technology, engaging all the senses. Johnson deftly weaves the story through the city’s pyramid terraces: from the slums of the base, where giant globes hold smelly algae collected from the storm-tossed bay and boys dance-fight to samba music in ancient capoeira style, through the tunnels where giant spiderbots repair the city’s transport pods, to the glowing pinnacle where the queen makes her home.
Set amid this vibrance is June’s struggle between the desire to create art that will win her fame and fortune, and her love for the city and the Summer King, highlighting themes of ethical competition, personal sacrifice, and the necessity of balancing tradition with necessary social change. If you have ever set aside your passions for the welfare of others, or if you’re looking for inspiration in these turbulent, unjust times, The Summer Prince encourages you to keep choosing the bittersweet pain of the long road.
6. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
“What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
Modern readers might need a moment to fall under the spell of this little book’s simple but elegant language and its fable-like characters and lessons.The story is framed by a weeklong conversation between a stranded pilot who has crashed in the desert, and a small boy from another planet. The little prince tells the pilot about his home – a tiny asteroid with three volcanoes and a rose that he cares for – and about the people he has met on his journeys, all of whom are too caught up in some meaningless task to understand what matters in life.
When he himself was a small boy, the narrator of The Little Prince learned that adults could not see beyond the surface of things, because they could not understand his drawings without explanation. The prince’s stories seem to hold a mirror up to the narrator’s own childhood lessons, and, when the prince and pilot part ways, he returns to his life still trying to look at the world through the eyes of a child.
Somehow, the symbolic imagery and episodic structure somehow never become heavy-handed. Instead, as both the prince and the pilot get to know one another and hunt for water, they come to realize through their loneliness and extended travels that they now truly appreciate their homes and relationships.
It can be difficult to justify the time we spend on relationships and creative projects, particularly if they don’t produce results that the world deems valuable. You might never publish your novel, and your painting might go no farther than your own wall. But the time and effort you put into them becomes part of who you are, and therefore makes them precious.
7. Duma Key by Stephen King
“[T]he only way to go on is to go on. To say ‘I can do this’
even when you know you can’t.”
You might be surprised to find Stephen King on this list, but the man is an inspiration all on his own, having written over 58 novels and 200 short stories. Duma Key tells the story of Edgar Freemantle, a middle-aged construction tycoon who loses an arm in a horrific accident that also leaves him with aphasia and uncontrollable rage. Newly divorced, he moves to a tiny island in the Florida Keys and rents a house from an eccentric woman with Alzheimer’s, who used to entertain artists there. As part of his recovery, Edgar has taken to sketching, which leads him to discover a latent talent for painting; alone in his beach house, he begins to paint psychic, technicolor masterpieces that he barely remembers creating.
As this is Stephen King, you ought to know that the paintings are connected to an eerie, unsolved mystery that haunts the island, which I won’t spoil for you. But the tale of a successful middle-aged man losing everything and starting over, turning to art as a way to heal, will spark a flame in any creative’s heart. It takes quite a while for the horror to kick in; in the meantime, readers are treated to a host of engaging characters, the lush Florida coast, and Edgar’s extraordinary paintings. When Edgar attracts the attention of a local art gallery and is invited to show his work, the thrill of that success may as well be the reader’s own.
Of course, that’s when the ground falls out from beneath Edgar’s feet. But, after everything he has been through, and at great personal cost, he has the strength and will to fight the entity plaguing the island. Say what you will about horror, but the parts of the novel that deal with creative passion ring true: give in to it wholeheartedly, and it can be a supernatural experience. And finally, let Edgar’s age be an inspiration to late-blooming artists: you’re never too old to start.
8. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
“All you can do is follow your path all the way to the wilderness, and then you continue along because that’s what must be.”
Who Fears Death is an origin story set in a future Africa, with two peoples in perpetual conflict: the pale-skinned Nuru, and the dark Okeke, whom they have enslaved. And in the middle, an Ewu girl, born of violence to a Nuru wizard and an Okeke woman. Her name is Onyesonwu, which means ‘who fears death’. Already reviled for being Ewu, Onye finds life even more complicated when it becomes obvious that she has mystical powers, which she must learn to control. That, and her desire to avenge her mother’s rape, set her on a quest to change the fates of both the Nuru and Okeke forever.
Who Fears Death brings to the reader an unflinching look at cultural traditions not often seen in Western literature, particularly the use of rape as a means to control populations, female genital mutilation, and extreme gender imparity. However, behind the harsh unfamiliarity and fantastical elements lie issues that are still very much alive in Western society. The rich, lyrical writing and African vocabulary paired with refreshingly unique – and believable – depictions of magic make this novel a rollicking good read.
Onyesonwu is a fierce yet flawed character that readers will find no trouble identifying with. Fighting against self-loathing, apathy, and injustice, she learns to master her creative powers with equal parts joy and fear, warring emotions that anyone undertaking artistic ventures can attest to. Her dogged perseverance, in spite of opposition from both enemies and her own community, will be especially inspiring to anyone starting out, struggling to improve their skills, or looking for a reason not to give up.
9. Circe by Madeline Miller
“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer.
Then, child, make another.”
Sometimes, particularly for writers, it feels like there are no new ideas. Luckily, within every story that’s already been told, there’s always something left unexplored, and there is no better place to look for inspiration than within a well-known and beloved tale. Circe is, in part, a modern response to Homer’s Odyssey, a reimagining of one of its minor characters and seen through her eyes. Although she is the daughter of the sun god, Circe is something of a disappointment to the immortals of Olympus; they consider her powers to be little more than witchcraft. When the mortal man she loves falls for a vain nymph, she uses her power to change the nymph into a monster. For this, she is banished to a tiny island, where she builds herself a house and garden and creates spells, until a ship of men land on her shores.
The untamed beauty of the island of her exile, Aiaia, makes an apt parallel to Circe’s own personal revelations and triumphs; the isolation causes intense loneliness, while also allowing her to focus on her skills in a way that would have been impossible on Olympus. It also provides a source of tension between Circe and the other characters who wind up on the island, including Odysseus, with whom she falls in love and has a son. When Odysseus leaves Aiaia, Circe is left to raise the boy herself. Creative mothers, single or otherwise, will find a lot of humor and inspiration here, as motherhood is an unexpected occupation for Circe, one that both thrills and maddens her, as it makes it difficult for her to practice her arts.
If you’re casting about for a new project to start but all your ideas have been taken, consider mining an old myth, classic tale, or even a poem for ways to make it new. For even if there are no more new ideas, you have a unique perspective and style that will help you create something that no one else could.
10. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
“Have you also learned that secret from the river;
that there is no such thing as time?”
In Siddhartha, a wealthy young man from a high caste in ancient India chooses to leave his privileged life and sets out in search of wisdom, happiness, peace, and the true meaning of life. Over a period of many years, he tries various ideals of wisdom, including self-denial, renouncing property; he meets Gotama (Buddha) and struggles to understand his seemingly contradictory teachings. Still searching for meaning, for a time he embraces the physical and material world, becoming wealthy and taking a lover, but he remains unfulfilled. The only person he meets who seems to embody the peace he is looking for is a ferryman who has spent years studying the flowing water of a river.
Time passes uniquely in this novel; Hesse compresses years into short passages, while expanding short interludes. This emphasizes the frustrating reality that we must go through long periods of life between the sparks of insight and experiences that guide our path. Behind this simple structural decision lies the crux of the novel’s complex concepts: there are no shortcuts to wisdom; it is only through experiencing life fully that anyone can attain it.
If you feel as though you haven’t found your life’s calling, or if you are regretting a decision, let Siddhartha inspire you keep moving forward. Life is long, and every twist and turn, whether planned or unexpected, build who you are.
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