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.