The other day I got an email from a writer-friend. She was feeling a strong desire to put more time into her writing and wanted a guide-rope to help her get up the mountain. She asked if I could recommend any writing books that might have exercises to inspire and guide her. I’m glad she asked because when it comes to writing books, I’m a believer. I used to think that perhaps it was a waste of time to read books on writing — time that was better spent actually writing. But quite early on, I realized there was a lot of wisdom in those books, as well as good company.
Now I’d have to say that all of the writing books I’ve ever read have been useful in one way or another. It’s not necessarily the exercises they offer as much as the feeling of being in conversation with another writer, discovering their thought processes, and learning the tricks and techniques they use to keep their writing honed. Whenever my writing is in a lull, I find that reading the musings of another writer nearly always manages to reboot my own writing program.
The writing book I quote the most is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I love her admonition to give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts. But the writing book that taught me the most was Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction. The “shapes” that Stern provides are like doorways into the heart of short story writing. Of course, for building a foundation in fiction writing, you can’t go wrong with Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction.
Another book I enjoy, especially for its prompt on writing the 15-sentence portrait, is Wendy Bishop’s Working Words: The Process of Creative Writing. And then there are the standby’s that no writer should be without –Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. She’s got a new book about memoir writing that I plan to add to my list. Many people swear by the Julia Cameron books.
Recently I picked up a different kind of writing book. It’s called Citizens of the Dream and is a series of letters to Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis, whom I recently met at the Sun Magazine’s Writing Conference at the Esalen Institute. The subtitle of the book is “41 good, serious, smart answers to your questions about writing, painting, paying, acting and living the creative life.” And that’s just what it is. He has gathered questions pertaining to creativity (and lack thereof) and provided answers that are heartfelt, thoughtful, funny, and so human.
Here’s an excerpt from one of one of Cary’s answers:
Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic, and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.
WIY: Write a letter of advice to yourself. What is the wisest, most compassionate thing you can tell yourself about your own writing? Next, Get thee to a library and check out a book on writing. Spend time with it. Treat it like an old friend. Or a new friend. Get to know it. Get inspired.