Cover photo by Blair Speed
Last year, I began my obsession with de-cluttering. As many people can relate, throwing out books can be the hardest part of the process. It took me a while to build up the courage to discard the novels and works of nonfiction that had filled two large bookshelves and two medium-sized ones in the house. They're like friends, books, and throwing them out feels like a betrayal.
I finally did get around to donating over 200 books: I kept the ones I knew I would read again. And in the genre of "books on writing," the five titles listed below were the survivors of that KonMari purge.
Each title on this list offers something unique to the writing process in its myriad of stages: from tentative beginning to complex and tangled middle to that seemingly elusive final draft.
I would venture to guess the majority of books on writing available for sale are for novice writers and include motivational hooray for starting the creative process. I have a couple of those titles below, for even seasoned writers find themselves astray in the woods of self-doubt without so much as a cookie crumb. Yet the other three are craft-focused expositions that break down a story so we may better understand the tool kit we work with when composing a tale, true or imagined.
Of all the things I love about writing, from the catharsis of self-expression to the richness of connecting with others, the fact that it is a craft, a process more kin to woodworking than painting, more similar to sculpting than singing, is among the top reasons. Does one chose first person narrative or third, past or present tense? Would a metaphor or simple showing be more fitting here? Does a colon achieve the goal, or is an em dash in order?
The complexities of storytelling make writing a craft that can never truly be mastered, and thus a lifelong pursuit. Though I may have discarded dozens of books on writing, I intend to read dozens more. For now, these five are still on the shelves, offering their lessons. I hope fellow writers find them as useful as I do.
Writing Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg's Zen practice surfaces on the pages of this now-classic writing text. Her chapters are short and aim to simplify the writing process. I appreciate her approach, for while the complexity of storytelling can invigorate the process, it can also lead us into a state of paralysis, where too much information proves, once again, to be a thing. What I especially love about this book is how it helps us unlearn some of the fear of failure we can pick up while writing in public education.
I saw this fear all the time teaching at the university: students come to writing class with a distinct hate for writing, because writing had become something they were "bad" at, and in turn they hated the feeling of being rejected (understandably). The joys of creative writing then, and the doors writing can open in the psyche and imagination, become locked shut. This book offers a key to reopen a practice of writing grounded in exploration, rather than a "succeeding" or "failing" mentality.
Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott is a laugh out loud kinda hilarious. This book would fall in the "new writers needing a push over the edge" side of the spectrum, with the beginning chapters serving as a "Getting Started" guide, (literally the title of the first chapter). The middle chapters delve deeper into the structures of narrative, and the final ones offer gems like "Finding Your Voice" and even a stab at helping writers overcoming the dreaded "block." This is a quick read, feel-good book, and one I recommend for any writer looking to start or get a pick-me-up.
The Making of a Story
It's thick and extensive, and sits on my shelf for weeks before I find the motivation to return to it again, yet every time I do read this textbook, my mind feels like it's eating broccoli. Even though the first chapter is titled "What is This Thing Called Creative Writing," there's nothing super elementary about the book--though this isn't to say it's overly complex or not beginner-friendly. Norton routinely puts out solid anthologies and guides, and this one is no exception. Each chapter focuses on a different craft concept, from "The Shapely Story"(story design) to "Recognizable People" (character development), with ample examples from literary works that prove a pleasure to read.
The 3 A.M. Epiphany
This book was mandatory reading for a creative writing class I took in graduate school with Melanie Rae Thon. (She's an amazing author; I recommend her novel, The Voice of the River.) As the introduction explains, the word exercise originally meant "to drive out of an exclosure," and that is what the exercises in this book intend to do for your writing: bring you out of fences you probably didn't even know existed. Each chapter starts with a brief overview of the concept to be explored, and the prompts to follow invite a radical approach to the concept. What's refreshing about this book is the concepts aren't solely the usual ones we find in books about writing. It goes beyond "characters" and "dialogue," looking also at history, gender, travel, work, among other dynamic topics. This book helps me better understand my characters as it offers unique ways to get to knew them.
The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
THIS BOOK! There's so much to love. I mean, if you love grammar, that is; and even if you don't, it's an invaluable guide to relearning basic sentence structure, (which is useful for just about anyone). Beyond what a comma does, or how a colon differs from a semi-colon, it also offers an exploration into how grammar can shift the thematic meaning of a sentence.
It contains sage and timeless writing advice, such as "avoid using the passive voice" and "omit needless words." I return to this text more than any other, for though grammar improves with practice, it is a perfect example of how the micro can be more complex than the macro.