What to Read When You Can’t Write


Although I suppose there is a reality in which people are financially comfortable and mentally healthy enough to turn their self-isolation journeys into self-funded writing retreats, most of the creative people I know are watching their projected incomes combust, are unsure how they’ll cover rent and mortgages, and/or are homeschooling their children with wildly varying degrees of success. They have neither the space, cash, nor emotional energy to sink into whatever it was they planned to write (or finish) pre-COVID.

I think it’s incredibly hard for creative people to recognize the amount of work they could be getting done with the time that has suddenly been given to us if they didn’t have dependents, anxiety, financial concerns. Even reading is proving difficult for a lot of avid readers. I myself was a two-books-a-week kind of gal, and I have been reading two pages a night of the same book for weeks now. (For the record, that book is Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos, forthcoming from Tin House in July, and I’m reading it slowly to savor its amazingness and because Bakopoulos’s cool prose calms me down.)

For those of you whose creativity feels confined to preparing weird canned food and phoning into to virtual dance parties, I’ve compiled this list of books that will (hopefully!) inspire you to stay open and inventive, while also reminding you that it’s okay if art cooks slow. It’s okay to take the time right now to appreciate other people’s work, instead of making our own.

Good luck to everyone out there. Read, if you can’t write.


theMystery.Doc by Matthew McIntosh
If there is a better time to read a massive shapeshifting doorstopper of an existential whodunit, I don’t want to know what that time would be. Reading this book will be a meta experience: the prose disappears into blanked-out lines, there are film stills spliced into the text, photographs from strangers’ childhoods: just trust me; it is moving and incredible, and it’s what you need right now.


I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
As someone who is trying to experiment with the diary form at present, I find a lot of comfort in this cult favorite about a frustrated filmmaker lusting for an art warlock-type in Marfa, Texas that the narrator calls “Dick.” Manic at times, incredibly lucid and/or erudite at others, I reread this book as a reminder that the experience of living in a female body is a plot in itself.


Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
If you need a comic read but don’t want to read something so light it makes you feel like you’re shoving your head into the sand, this savvy, mischievous story collection is perfection. Each of these stories—which center mostly on upper-middle-class black families—takes an unexpected turn that proves what a power couple pathos and absurdity make.


Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth and Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
Both these novels ask the timely question of what life is like in a vacation-like atmosphere when you’re not on a vacation. Both also deal with solitude: in Unferth’s debut novel, a man follows his wife who is following a stranger, and in Lacey’s, a young woman ditches her husband, family, and home for a poorly planned, last-minute trip to New Zealand. That it is okay (and worthwhile) to sink into our feelings, that sadness holds momentum—these are just a couple of the lifelines that these books throw to me.


Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
A reminder of the power and the fury and the potential for salvation that a family unit can contain, written in a language that will convince you (if you ever doubted it) that stories can save souls.


We the Animals by Justin Torres
A wonderful read for anyone who is sinking into the kind of boredom that makes you want to break things you shouldn’t touch and run up trees that you don’t own, Torres’s debut is a glorious ode to mischief-making and the resilience of imagination.


Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker
If there has ever been a time for poetry, it’s now, and methinks that Zucker’s claustrophobic, slightly manic, always beautiful ode to the hellscape of new parenting might be a timely read.


The First Bad Man by Miranda July
This book is off-the-wall batty but it’s also tight. I’m trying to write about the moment that we are living through—or rather, I’m trying to write through what this current moment looks like for me and my family—and July’s prose is a guiderail reminding me that one day, after a lot of revision, there might just be something beautiful and shining in the mess of words on my desk.


It Is Daylight by Arda Collins
This book is out of print—a scandal—but if you can find someone who has it, make some kind of safe, long-distance-trade deal, because this book is a stunner. You have only to look up the first poem in the collection, “The News,” to see why.


Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, translated by Tim Mohr
Set in an anonymous German city, this book follows the adventures of an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl who is trying to get treatment for an anal fissure. Yes, really. This book won’t be for everyone, but it is absolutely and fully about the workings of the body, and it might prove, let’s say, transporting, for those who dream of a time where they can do something kind of naughty without washing their skin off, after.


My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
It’s looking like it’s going to be us, our respective dependents and our internet connections for the long haul, so why not read an incredible memoir that was inspired by academic research? This recent release is a feat of emotional bravery and intellectual savvy. Perhaps it will inspire you to write about your own life through the lens of someone else’s!


Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
A concluding ode to research (because if you can’t write what you want to write, maybe you can research what you want to write next?) is this hot-off-the-presses release about an expelled PhD candidate’s doomed crush on her mentor. A book filled with lust and antidotes and emotional failings and a lot of poisonous plants.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Courtney’s new book, Before and After the Book Deal, out now from Catapult! – Ed.

Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum
Are MFA programs worth the time and money? How do people actually sit down and finish a novel? Did you get a good advance? What do you do when you feel envious of other writers? And why the heck aren’t your friends saying anything about your book? Covering questions ranging from the logistical to the existential (and everything in between), acclaimed author Courtney Maum has put together a definitive guide for anyone who has ever wanted to know what it’s really like to be an author.

Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre (a GOOP book club pick and one of Glamour Magazine’s top books of the decade), I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and Touch (a New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the Year selection), and the handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book, from Catapult. Her writing has been widely published in such outlets as the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the collaborative retreat program, The Cabins and she also has a writing-advice newsletter, “Get Published, Stay Published,” that you can sign up for at courtneymaum.com. More from this author →