Inspiration from Dostoyevsky

I find writing inspiration all around me. One thing that inspires me is when an author does something interesting or unexpected. One such author is Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Now don’t fall asleep on me yet. I’m quite aware that not everyone shares the love for Dostoyevsky that I do. Mostly people who were forced to read him in school. Fortunately, my introduction was different, but it almost ended as disastrously.

A friend encouraged me (and I say encouraged instead of forced to be polite) to read Dostoyevsky. My mistake was when I started with The Idiot (that’s the name of the book, not my friend).  Not only were there a ridiculous number of Russian names thrown at me within the first twenty pages, Dostoyevsky switches how he refers to characters. He uses first, middle, and last names and then switches the combination of these names to refer to the same character, even in the same paragraph. So if a character was named Ivan Petrovitch Ptitsyn, he might be referred to as Ivan Petrovitch, or Petrovitch Ptitsyn, or Ivan Ptitsyn. It made it very difficult for me to keep track of the characters, and may be why I came to understand the importance of name consistency as I discussed in last week’s post: Character Names and Nicknames.

I never finished reading The Idiot. It’s still on my list of books to read some day. Luckily, I tried some of his other works, starting with short stories before working up to longer pieces.

It was on this journey that I came to read his novella The Underground. This may be one of his better known pieces aside from Crime and Punishment, although The Double has several film adaptations and is one of the pieces that sticks with me the most. But I digress.

Onto the lesson from The Underground. After reading this novella, I found I was depressed for a good two weeks. And I’d moved onto other things. It took me a while to pinpoint why I was feeling that way. Everything appeared to be fine in my life. Then one day it dawned on me. It was the story. Yes, it’s a dark story, it’s a bit depressing, but I’ve read stories like that before and had no long term effects from them.

Usually when you read, the emotions, the plot, the characters, all of that is out in the open and as a reader, you choose to go on the journey that an author has set for you. The author develops the story, and the reader engages in it and becomes a willing participant to go emotionally where the author is telling the reader the story is going. Then you’re done, you maybe brood over it a bit, and then move on.

I found out though, that there can be more. I learned that an author can make a reader feel something without their permission. I’d always been a willing participant before, going along for the ride, sometimes jumping ship if the book’s sentimentality was too forceful in telling me I had to feel a certain way about what had just happened to a character. But never had I been so subtly swayed into feeling something that by the time I was overwhelmed with the emotion, I had no idea of its source.

So if you haven’t read Dostoyevsky before, be in the right frame of mind. Have your guard up a bit. Don’t start with The Idiot. Perhaps his short story The Gambler would be a safer choice.


Is there an author who you learned something from that you haven’t seen in other people’s work? What author or book has influenced the way you write or even just had an impact on you even if you don’t write?



  1. // Reply

    Mandie, I’ve found that the great ones can do that. It’s almost a violation, isn’t it?! Unfortunately, the older I get, the more easily I’m affected, especially by the dark themes. I’m moody for weeks and have to watch my thoughts or I slip into dark, dangerous pondering. Not even gardening snaps me out of it.

    I have physically buried books out of sight on the shelves just so the cover doesn’t trigger me again. There are books I’ve read in my youth I could not bear to read again although I’ve tried. “Love in the Time of Cholera” is one. I went back to it and couldn’t read more than a paragraph at a time without falling into its dismal trap. When I was young, I didn’t realize just how REAL those themes were or how consuming.

    Some authors just have no fear of wrestling with human truth and no lack of skill in mimicking the way its threaded through our lives, unseen but felt.

    In that respect, I’m a coward. I can, sometimes, write 200 real words but then I’m done for the day. And I certainly don’t have the same skill set!

    Another good post, Mandie. I enjoy these.

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      Yes, Kecia! It is like a violation. I’m so in awe of it though that I find I don’t mind. But if I know an author has that ability, I really have to be in the right mind frame to read their work. Dostoyevsky in particular, has the power, but it always triggers the same emotion, and it’s dark.
      I understand what you mean about needing to be brave to infuse your work with something real. I think that’s a long struggle I’m facing. Trying to be vulnerable in my writing to have it reveal part of me and then not being afraid to share that with other people.
      One of the greatest joys I’ve found though, is that sometimes I feel like I learn more about an author through their writing than I might sitting down and having a conversation with them. Especially if you see the same theme or subject matter popping up in their writing.
      I enjoyed your comment and getting a glimpse into your experience with books.

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    I haven’t read a single word of Dostoyevsky yet, but I’m going to put The Underground on my reading list and hope for the best.

    I admit I haven’t read much in the way of classics. I grew up reading Stephen King and Roald Dahl, both of which are/were masters of creating great characters and alternative worlds where you can escape from the crap of daily life.

    Rod Serling and Charles Beaumont, who wrote many of the original Twilight Zone episodes, were also brilliant at creating alternative realities. Rather than bringing me down, though, the stories these men wrote made me believe that anything’s possible in life. And in death. So I guess it’s a double-edged sword when writers can make you feel something different.

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      I have quite the eclectic taste when it comes to books. I really enjoy Stephen King too. One of my favorite is still “The Langoliers” because of that very idea you touched on, that anything is possible. My other favorite is “The Shining.”
      I definitely am fascinated anytime an author creates different worlds. I used to enjoy watching The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents when I was younger. I love twists, and challenging what you thought you knew.

      1. // Reply

        The Shining is one of my favourites too…there’s very little horror in there, it’s all about setting an atmosphere. That’s probably near the top of my “I wish I wrote that” list.

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          Yes. Yes, Scarlett! The atmosphere. Oh it’s fantastic. I’m so glad to have met another horror fan!!
          You’re right though, The Shining isn’t scary. I have to admit that although I enjoy his work, I don’t find it particularly scary, maybe my threshold is too high. I find his stories intriguing for sure, but not so scary. It’s been a while since I’ve found an author who scares me so much that I have to stay up half the night to find out what happens, just so I can go to sleep without worrying about all the dark spaces in the room that I can’t quite see into.
          I still love horror though, even if it doesn’t keep me up. I like the intrigue and suspense. And I’m always delighted when an author does something unexpected.

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            I’m definitely a fellow horror fan! Although I admit I’m not into the gore and shock factors that a lot of horror writers/movie makers use these days. I prefer old horror movies and I like the psychological aspects. Having said that, I don’t need an author to scare me…I do that to myself. I haven’t slept with the light off in years and I always worry about what’s lurking in dark corners 🙁

          2. //

            I’m just nodding my head all the way through your comment. I love the psychological aspects as well, it’s one of my favorite part of any genre really (although I have many favorite parts).
            I scare myself all the time, and perhaps that’s the reason I enjoy writing horror. I have inside information on what I find scary, so I never fail to freak myself out.

  3. // Reply

    I think the author that inspire me most is Borges at the moment. I really like the way he approach a subject and work a whole piece into a larger metaphor for something else. The library of Babel is probably one of the pieces that have affected me most…

    1. // Reply

      I have not yet had the pleasure of reading Borges; although, his themes of dreams, labyrinths, libraries, and mirrors sound fascinating.
      Since libraries make frequent appearances in your poems, it makes sense to me that this would be someone you are inspired by and just gave me a little bit of insight into your writing.
      I have often pondered about how I could spend the rest of my life reading, and never read all the amazing writers and books in existence, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying.

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    Harrumph. I composed a long reply and then the reader told me there has been an error and it crashed. I’m in bed and falling asleep, but in short, George Saunders is a big influence, and while I love tight, economical writing, some of my favourite authors like Wodehouse and William Boyd enjoy playing with language too.

    Oh and horror fans, The Shining Girls is a lot of fun 🙂

    1. // Reply

      Oh, I’m disappointed that the reader didn’t work properly, Ben. I have heard a few times that the WordPress App does not like to work with my website, but as of yet I haven’t figured out why and therefore no solution has come to light. I feel I probably missed out on a great comment, but I’m glad you were at least able to summarize your comment. I enjoy hearing about all the different authors that people talk about in these comments. I’ll have to hit this section when I’m at a loss of what to read next, because there are a lot of great suggestions here.
      I just read a quick blurb about The Shining Girls. Sounds interesting. I’ll have to put it on my list of books to read.

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    This is wonderful. Many years ago I enjoyed studying Russian in college, and while I began reading Dostoyevsky in russian then, I never succeeded. Chekhov, Tolstoy and Aleksandr Blok’s poetry were then and still are some of my favorites – in translation. Once you get a feel for the literature, the culture and history, as well as the cold winters and so on – you can get an understanding of the modern russian ‘everyman’. But then I have a bit of a tortured soul — or at least I thought so many years ago (until I learned that I was of Polish not Russian heritage!).

    1. // Reply

      I really enjoyed this comment. 🙂 It is interesting how the way we perceive our identity can influence our interests, so to find out you were Polish instead of Russian must have felt odd since that may have been one of the reasons you felt drawn to Russian literature and the language.
      I once came across an old copy of a Dostoyevsky book in Russsian at a rare books store in Portland, ME. I believe the store was called Carlson & Turner Antiquarian. I didn’t buy the book, because it had quite a hefty price tag on it, but I was so excited just to see such an old print of the book in Russian. Of course, I don’t speak Russian, so it probably wouldn’t have done me a whole lot of good.

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    I’ve never read any books from this author, but I’ve heard of him.

    ‘I learned that an author can make a reader feel something without their permission.’ This is what I want to feel while I am reading a story and over the years I’ve been moved by so many stories that I feel as if I was being tortured after reading. However, two authors have inspired me most over the years: Alexandre Dumas and James Patterson. Dumas was the first author I fell in love with. His style of writing is timeless.

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      One of the fun things about this post, is learning about all these different authors whose work speaks to different readers/writers. The connection a reader can have with someone else’s work is incredible.
      And sometimes timing is really important too. I’ve read authors who I didn’t like, and years later I come back and read their work and fall in love. And the opposite has happened too. It’s all about being in the right spot in your life in order to be receptive to certain stories.

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