Your Guide to the Best Books On Writing

The thursday review.png

Writers, this one is for you.

I know that when I’m dreading sitting down in front of the blank page or going back to edit a new manuscript, something I love to do is read advice from the people who have already done it, and have done it well. These are all books I’ve devoured and gone back to again and again, so you can be sure that they are worth your time.

You’ll notice some of these have a star next to the title—these are the books I recommend you start with if you haven’t read any book on writing before. Let me know if you end up giving any of them a try!  

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro

still writing.jpg

Dani Shapiro’s memoir Hourglass is among one of my favorite books, so when I saw that she also had a memoir on life as a writer, I knew I needed to read it! The book follows her typical style, written in vignettes that make her prose read like poetry. She offers so many pieces of wisdom, and always emphasizes that being a writer involves practice much more than it relies on inspiration.

She is practicing because she knows there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art.

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

young writer.jpg

This book takes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, packaged in a new and modern form. It is a series of 52 short essays that talk about everything from the writing process to making a career out of being a writer. Each essay begins with a quote from a famous author we love, and every essay can stand alone, waiting for you to come back to it when you need just a brief nudge of inspiration.

We are being bought off by our affair with the contemporary drug of choice: ease.

On Writing, by Stephen King

on writing.jpg

The king of horror is also the king of the writing memoir, seeing that this book is one of the most widely read memoirs on writing out there. I first came across the book when I was 20 years old, feeling entirely stuck in one of my college’s creative writing classes. A professor recommended this book as “the greatest source of knowledge” on the subject I could find (which meant a lot considering my professors were excellent resources themselves). I’ve turned to it again and again, and know that anyone who reads it will have something to gain.

Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?

Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

imagine.jpg

While this book isn’t specifically focused on writing, I found it to be extraordinarily interesting and helpful when viewing it through a writing-focused lens. The book talks about all things creativity: where it comes from, how best both individuals and companies use it, the myths circulating around creativity, and how every single person has creativity within them. Coming from a science background rather than a background as an artist, it had an entirely new perspective than most other books you can find on the subject!

In fact, the only way to remain creative over time—to not be undone by our expertise—is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.

Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert

magic.jpg

On the opposite side of the spectrum as Imagine, Gilbert’s Big Magic is a playful and delightful exploration of the nature of creativity. Coming from the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, the book does address the ways in which she believes spirituality plays a part in creativity, and is filled with anecdotes to back up her theories. The most important takeaway I got from this book, however, is that creativity should be fun! We just need to get out of our own way and remember what a gift it is to be able to make things out of nothing.

Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Bird-by-Bird-image1.jpg

Chances are, you’ve heard of this one. This book is a raging bestseller, helping people in all kinds of fields remember that work gets done one thing at a time, “bird by bird.” Lamott is as hilarious as she is compassionate and insightful, and this book feels like a big hug and a kick in the ass at the same time. If you’re a writer, you need this book in your life. Period.

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor

prayer journal.jpg

This may seem like an odd pick for this list, but this prayer journal speaks the raw truth of being a writer. O’Connor wants so desperately to become a writer, and not only that, but to become an important writer. She pleads with God to give her the right words to say. I found it to be extremely moving—to hear the innermost thoughts of someone we consider to be an enormous success, and recognize my own thoughts in them. Us writers, we all face some of the same insecurities no matter when we were born or how successful we are in the world.

I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today. The word craftsmanship takes care of the work angle & the word aesthetic the truth angle.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

art.jpg

When you’re afraid to begin your project, go ahead and pick up this book. It is filled with small chunks of non-nonsense text that will remind you art is made from work, not from excuses. He gives you the inspiration and pep talks to get through the worst of your inner resistance against creation, and reminds you that fear is always a good starting point. This is a good book to pick up and flip through in the times you feel like you need it—you don’t need to read it from start to finish every time.

Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.