Last night, at my writers’ group meeting, another member of the group gave me a book about writing. She’d found it on her shelf amid a large number of other books about writing and discovered that she somehow had two copies. The book, by Margaret Atwood (one of my idols), is entitled “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing” and may very well one day take its place on my own shelf of favorite books about writing. I can tell that this is so even though I’m only partway through chapter one, “Who do you think you are?” (which is about all those things we tell ourselves when we decide we want to write).
I also own and have read (and re-read) a large number of books about writing (above is a photo of a portion of one bookshelf devoted to these types of books) and have discovered that my favorites are those which describe, in detail, the life of a writer. When I was working, for decades, at jobs other than that of full-time writer, I needed to read these accounts of “the writer’s life” to keep myself going. Now that I’m living that life myself, I still need to read these books; they let me know that the struggles and difficulties of being a writer are not due to my own failings but, rather, are those that all writers share.
I’ve selected a small group of what I consider the best books on the writing life and have listed them below. If you’re looking for a gift for a writer in your family, or for yourself, try one of these:
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird This book is a classic and gets to the heart of the ways we sabotage our own best intentions when we try to write. Every writer should own this book.
Stephen King, On Writing Every writer should own this book, too, even if (like me) you’ve never read any other book by Stephen King. The advice he gives here is direct, practical and no-nonsense.
Brenda Ueland, If You Want To Write Another classic, that every writer should have. You might think this book would be dated, since it was first published in the 1930s, but other than some archaic expressions here and there, the advice is timely and timeless.
Carolyn See, Making a
Literary Life I learned about this book in a writing workshop and found it to be full of practical advice about how to be a writer. Since I had not been around a lot of writers, other than in workshops, I found the advice in this book about how to spend each day to be extremely helpful.
Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writers’ Life Goldberg’s other book, “Writing Down the Bones,” is the one most people talk about, but this is the book that changed my writing and improved it by orders of magnitude. In addition to being about Goldberg’s life as a writer, it suggests several writing exercises that are amazing tools for freeing up your mind and getting the words flowing. Get this book and try some of the exercises — you won’t regret it.
Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet This is technically not a book about writing, but it is a book about living as a writer, and I have read it over and over and over. It is really a book about faith — about faith in oneself, in one’s work, in the creative process — and about holding onto those beliefs even when life is complicated and busy. When my children were young and I had a full time job as a scientist and teacher, but longed to be a writer, this is the book that kept me going.
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way People either love this book or they hate it. It is truly a “self-help” book (and I do not like self-help books), it’s modeled on the twelve steps of AA (and I’m not a twelve-stepper), and the author is more than a bit insufferable — but, despite all these flaws, this book has been The One to get me out of the life I used to have and into my current one of full-time writer. Despite the book’s many flaws, the method she proposes really works. If you are one of those people who want to write, but are not writing, get this book and prepare to have your life changed.
Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others This is a relatively new addition to my list, but I think it’s a keeper. Much of the material about “writing alone” is identical to that in Julia Cameron’s book (I’m not sure who borrowed from the other, but I doubt they came up with these approaches independently). However, the sections of the book about writing with others, in writing workshops or writers’ groups, is not covered by any of the other books I’ve seen so the book is worth a spot on your shelf. If you are in a writers’ group and looking for practical advice about getting the most out of your group, check out this book.
These eight are my personal favorites. Perhaps Atwood’s book will take its place among them, but I need to finish reading it before I can decide if it makes the cut. While I know that the choice of “best books” is completely subjective, these are the books about writing, for writers, that I have found especially useful and can recommend to you.
However, I’m certain there are other worthy additions to the list, and I learn about new books every day, like I did last night! What books for writers about writing would you add to this list?