Confession time. Sometimes, I spend too much time reading about writing instead of just doing the work. Of course I know that there is no magic wand, and that the only way to be a writer is to actually (gasp!) write something. But still, the allure of the how-to or the how-I-did-it tome from an “expert” is hard for me to resist.
So, yes…the actual writing is an integral part of things. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be learned from the wisdom of others. My collection is extensive, but there are a few volumes that I return to, again and again. These are the books that I’m passionate about, the ones I want you to read too, so we can talk about them. These ones are my favourites.
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. This one is a no-brainer. It was the first book I ever encountered that talked about how to be a writer, and I’ve read it more times than I can count. King’s style is conversational and friendly; I always come away from this one feeling as though I’ve just had the most incredible class with my favourite teacher.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” – Stephen King
2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I think I’ve read this one annually since I discovered it, around five or six years ago. Again, I’m drawn to the voice — she’s nurturing, but doesn’t sugar-coat a damn thing. She wants us to do the work. Lamott encourages the aspiring writer to produce “shitty first drafts”, because you can’t edit an empty page. And also? Everyone, even the most successful, best-selling author on earth, starts with crap (well, except for a few truly obnoxious writers, who – she assures us – nobody likes, anyway). So why should we expect anything different from ourselves?
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” – Anne Lamott
3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White. This one is on my list partly because it reminds me that there is so much I don’t know about grammar, but mostly because of passages like this:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” – Strunk & White
4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg introduced me to the idea of “writing practice”. An athlete, she points out, warms up and trains hard, running his drills every day. A musician wouldn’t expect to perform flawlessly without hours and hours of scales under her belt. So why should writers be any different? Writing Down the Bones taught me how important it is to keep up a writing practice, and guided me on how to do it. The free-writing techniques outlined in this book have provided me with plenty of material over the years, and I return to the “I remember…” exercise during almost every writing project.
“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” – Natalie Goldberg
5. Do the Work! by Steven Pressfield. Fitting that I’d end the list here. This is the guy who kicks your ass and tells you to get down to business, already. He’s the one who tells you that, if you’re ready to run away, that’s just a sign that you’re doing it right, so you sure as hell better not quit now.
“Don’t prepare. Begin.” – Steven Pressfield
So. What are your favourite books on writing? I’m always looking for recommendations…