6 Essential Books on Writing

Mar 19

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If you’re anything like me, you have perfected multiple methods of procrastination you employ when you know it’s really time to write. Among my favorites are organizing my desk and catching up on my favorite blogs, not to mention this one employed by Liz Gilbert:

For a long time, I thought that reading books on writing was just another form of procrastination, but lately I’ve had a change of heart. Sure, a writer could find herself overwhelmed by the accomplishments and advice of those more talented and more experienced, but I often find both comfort and inspiration in these books. I love knowing that some of my favorite writers share some of my struggles and feel motivated to try some of their methods for overcoming them.

So, without any further ado, a list of my six essential books on writing, the ones I turn to most as balms for my writerly soul:

1. The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. In this short, dense collection of essays, Dillard meditates on the painful, liberating work of the writer and offers advice gleaned from her own experiences. Both spiritual and passionate, The Writing Life is not for the faint of heart, exposing, as it does, not only the glory, but also the trials of a writer’s work.

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

2. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. Compared to Dillard’s, Goldberg’s classic manual is deceptively simple. The sentences are shorter, somewhat gentler, but the advice – drawing on the author’s study of Zen meditation – is no less profound, nor less graceful. I’m especially inspired by Goldberg’s practical suggestions; reading her words, it feels like she’s heard all my excuses and has a solution for every one.

Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings. A writer is all at once everything – an architect, French cook, farmer – and at the same time, a writer is none of these things.

3. On Writing, by Stephen King. This book fascinates me on two levels: for the details it offers about Stephen King’s life story and the practical miscellany it affords. I have read very little of Stephen King’s fiction, but his friendly, open-hearted writing style show me that good writing advice applies universally, regardless of genre.

Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it…I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side – I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the things. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

…Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.

4. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. You know that hackneyed hypothetical about who you’d invite to a dinner party if you could only include three people, living or dead? I can’t imagine any more entertaining recipient of an invitation than Anne Lamott, whether she’s dishing on the importance of carrying notecards, jealousy among writers, or the inevitable letdown she feels upon seeing her work in print.

Try not to feel sorry for yourselves, I say, when you find the going hard and lonely. You seem to want to write, so write. You didn’t have to sign up for this class. I didn’t chase you down and drag you by the hair back to my cave. You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, someday the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.

5. “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” from This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. Though this entire collection of Ann Patchett’s nonfiction writing is terrific, it is her essay on writing that stands out to me. In it, Patchett tells the story of how she became a novelist, all the while dispelling myths and assumptions about how writing, unlike, say, playing the cello or writing an algebraic proof, is merely the “magic of inspiration.” Funny, warm, no-nonsense, Patchett’s is a vital contribution to the field of writing on writing.

Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.

6. Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro. I’ve had the good fortune of taking a writing workshop with Dani and her new book on writing embodies all of the vitality, humor, wisdom, and whole-heartedness that she brings to her teaching. In equal parts wake-up call and call-to-arms (call-to-pens?), Dani draws lessons from her own writing life to nudge her readers – gently, but firmly – in the direction of the page.

To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it – to know it cold. Whether you’re writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a philosophical treatise, or a work of fiction, you are facing your demons because they are there. To be alone in a room with yourself and the contents of your mind is, in effect, to go to that place, whether you intend to or not.

What are your favorite books on writing?

Image: Bookshelf by David Orban via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Shannon March 19, 2014 at 7:56 am

You’ve covered all of my favorites here! I haven’t read #5 or #6, but they are on my list.

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Andrea March 19, 2014 at 9:38 am

Some of these are on my list, and some I haven’t read yet, but I see I must! Right now I’m savoring Beth Kephart’s “Handling the Truth.” And Gabrielle Lussor Rico’s “Writing the Natural Way” is brilliant. Also, especially for mother-writers, I love Kate Hopper’s “Use Your Words” and Lisa Garrigues’s “Writing Motherhood.”

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Thanks so much for all of these suggestions! Just requested Handling the Truth from the library.

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Lindsey March 19, 2014 at 1:45 pm

All of these are among my favorites. Wonderful post. xoxo

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Kate Sheeran Swed March 19, 2014 at 3:11 pm

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin is brilliant. It’s my favorite. I also like Story by Robert McKee; it’s for screenwriting but I think it applies to many kinds of writers!

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for these recommendations, Kate. I have read several of Ursula LeGuin’s essays and a couple of her books, but don’t know this one. Another to add to my list!

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C. Troubadour March 19, 2014 at 3:29 pm

I picked up Still Writing with great hesitation months ago because I was afraid of what it would tell me — that I was full of excuses. And it did. But it was also the kindest voice I’d heard in years to help me understand that excuses are normal. Fear is normal. And once I could get past the idea that _______ was my reason of the day (fill in anything) not to be writing, even for one uninterrupted hour, then I could push back on all that. Oddly enough, we never talked about the fear in grad school, maybe because everyone there felt that admitting to it was to admit wanting it less, whatever *it* was. Or maybe everyone else had already learned how to distract themselves from their demons … ? I have my doubts ;)

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pamela March 19, 2014 at 4:18 pm

I am thrilled to say that I have almost every book on this list. At least I am doing something right … even though I am not writing …

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Perfecting Motherhood March 19, 2014 at 4:45 pm

I love Stephen King’s On Writing so much, I have my own copy. Bird by Bird is waiting for me to read it, after I saw so many great reviews. My short-term goal is to write pictures books and I’ve found that Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books has everything you need to know in there. Great resource!

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Can’t wait to read your picture books, Milka!

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Nina March 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I have loved every one of those! Great round up. Sharing somewhere now. Fb or twitter. Will see where the winds take me.

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Wolf Pascoe March 19, 2014 at 6:39 pm

Goodness me. Of the 4,000 books on writing I have read, these come to mind as particularly useful: The Triggering Town (Richard Hugo); Writing for Story (Jon Franklin–the only book on outlining that ever made sense to me. How long is an outline? 15 words. Exactly.); Elements of Style (Strunk and White, of course, if by some chance you’ve not read); Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke, of course); The last is more inspirational, but I’ve found that inspirational books on writing, while infinitely enjoyable, at some point become an excuse for not writing. My personal preference (is there another kind?) for inspiration is to read great writing that isn’t about writing, e.g., just finished T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (had put this off forever), which is stunningly wonderful.

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:44 pm

The Rilke and T.H. White are two of my husband’s most beloved books. I, of course, have never read them. Must remedy that soon.

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ayala March 19, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Wonderful books. I had the privilege of attending the Literary Feast this weekend and enjoying an evening with Dani Shapiro :) Love her books! Here is the link to a poem I wrote inspired by that night. I included a picture with beautiful Dani. http://asunkissedlife-ayala.blogspot.com/2014/03/spring-of-humanity.html

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Your words tell me that you gained as much from your time with Dani as I did. I couldn’t agree more: we all have a story to tell. xo

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Amanda March 20, 2014 at 11:32 am

Thank you for this. I do almost all of my reading online, my love affair with real books having been smothered by my infatuation, attentiveness, addiction to meeting the calls of my family and quiet daydreaming. I am tiptoeing back and this list is so helpful.

I collect the tweets, updates and sentences in emails from writer friends like, as if blossoms for a garland. They tickle at me softly, reminding me the cursor blinks petulantly for others, words fail, but then it clears, and all is right again. xo

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cynthia newberry martin March 22, 2014 at 2:35 pm

I agree on all of these except #3–I have not read Stephen King’s but will look for it. If I were at home, I would look up at my shelf to see what others I rely on–I know I have a shelf full. What I do more than anything these days is to take novels apart to find out how “they’re” doing it.

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denise March 25, 2014 at 3:08 pm

I’ve not read Ann Patchett’s or Stephen King’s but will add to my list! I’m currently savoring Dani’s and well, I adore it and her. Love the others you’ve mentioned, too.
I agree with Wolf–Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet speak to the quiet embers within.

“There is only one thing to do. Go into yourself. Examine your reason for writing. Discover whether it is rooted in the depths of your heart, and find out whether you would rather die than be forbidden to write. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, have I no choice by to write? Dig deep within for the truest answer, and if this answer is a strong and simple *yes*, then build your life upon this necessity. Your life henceforth, down to its most ordinary and insignificant moment, must prove and reveal this truth.” – Paris, 17 February 1903, Letters to A Young Poet, Rilke (Translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)

xo

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Can’t wait to read this one. If that quote is any indication, I know it will be more than worth my time. xo

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cynthia newberry martin March 25, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Oh I love this Rilke quote–I had forgotten about it and I needed to hear it again. Thank you.

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Kristen March 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Isn’t it wonderful, Cynthia? I can’t believe I have gone this long without reading Rilke. (Oh, the shame, the shame…)

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Rachael March 31, 2014 at 10:20 pm

Writing Down the Bones is the one I go to when I feel that I’ve got nothing left. My first favorite book on writing was If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I like what The War of Art by Steven Pressfield has to say about the Resistance (mine is strong), though I’m not a fan of the war metaphor. Right now I’m reading From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.

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Kristen April 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm

That was my reaction to The War of Art too. I liked the message, but not necessarily the macho war/golf analogies throughout. ;)

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