Every writer’s bookshelf probably has a few books on writing and creativity. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and On Writing by Stephen King are two that come to mind immediately. These “must-reads” are chock-full of encouragement and good advice, and they are definitely worth a reread if it’s been a while. So, in this list, I’m suggesting some books that may have slipped under your radar. Maybe they are a bit older or were published to less fanfare, but they still offer valuable guidance on how to navigate this writing life.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran. I enjoyed this peek behind the scenes at how some of my favorite authors work. It’s easy to dip in and out of this book when I need a dose of inspiration or a reality check. I was especially captivated by Isabel Allende’s discussion of how all of her stories are connected to her experiences in some way.
“Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.” ~Isabel Allende
Aside: I couldn’t agree more! This is why the writing explorations for my classes are personal and generated from direct experience, instead of random prompts without any connection to the writer.
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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. It’s been more than 20 years since this book was published and no doubt you’ve heard some of Anne Lamott’s timeless advice on the writing life passed from writer to writer. If you’ve never read it (or if it’s been 20 years), do yourself a favor and read it cover to cover. Anne Lamott will encourage you to be kinder to yourself in a gentle and humorous way.
“You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.” ~Anne Lamott
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Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro. This memoir is both intensely personal and universally applicable. Dani Shapiro asks you to treat your writing life with compassion and benevolence, but she also doesn’t let you off the hook. How does she manage to do that? Read it and find out.
“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”
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Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times. Taken from the famous column by the same name, Writers on Writing features pieces ranging from reflections on the daily craft of writing to the intersection of art and life. The common theme across all essays is what compels the author to write. I pick up this volume when I need a different take on the subject.
“I wrote to find beauty and purpose, to know that love is possible and lasting and real, to see day lilies and swimming pools, loyalty and devotion, even though my eyes were closed and all that surrounded me was a darkened room. I wrote because that was who I was at the core, and if I was too damaged to walk around the block, I was lucky all the same. Once I got to my desk, once I started writing, I still believed anything was possible.” ~Alice Hoffman
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Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing Your Creative Genius, by Ray Bradbury. This book will make you want to run to your computer and starting writing immediately, so infectious is Ray Bradbury’s enthusiasm for his life’s work. His passion and delight of coming to the page each day will rub off on you. I love his encouragement to follow your curiosity and instinct that lead to inspiration. It is fun and more lighthearted than most books in this category.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations…That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.”
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The Paris Review: Interviews. This collection of interviews have been published one at a time over the decades that the venerable Paris Review has been in print. Now, they are all on one website, where you can find some of the greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries talking in their own words. Interviews with contemporary writers Jonathan Franzen and Elena Ferrante to story masters Eudora Welty and Vladimir Nabokov are posted online. I savor each one. (The full interviews are available to subscribers, but a substantial portion can be read at no charge.)
“At the time of writing, I don’t write for my friends or myself, either; I write for it, for the pleasure of it. I believe if I stopped to wonder what So-and-so would think, or what I’d feel like if this were read by a stranger, I would be paralyzed.” ~Eudora Welty, Fall 1972
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What writing books would you add to the list?