Nine Must-Reads for Writers

There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.

1. The Halfway House for Writers, Valley Haggard

The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard is an inspirational book for anyone embarking on any sort of writing journey. It is conversational, honest, and motivational. It advocates for raw, fearless writing, presenting writing as a means of healing, learning, and growing, among other things. The author teaches various writing classes in the Richmond area, and maintains lifein10minutes.com, for which an anthology is due out next year. This book is perfect for anyone looking for encouragement or ideas–or both. Read my interview with the author regarding the book here.

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Valley Haggard’s book for writers, The Halfway House for Writers, takes an encouraging approach toward writing, having been written for “wounded writers.”

2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg

I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.

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Room to Write provides ample protection against writer’s block, offering almost 200 prompts.
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The pages of Room to Write include an introduction to each prompt, the actual prompt, and relevant quotes from recognizable writers.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser

My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.

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The conversational tone of this book makes it appealing and easy to read. I read it as a graduate student in a creative writing program, but even my high school students have benefitted from the lessons conveyed in this book.

4. 642 Things to Write About

As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.

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My husband, who clearly knows me well, gave this book to me as a Christmas gift. Like Room to Write, it furnishes writers with weapons against the dreaded writer’s block–642 of them, to be exact. Each page features between one and four prompts, and space on which to write your responses directly in the book.

5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick

This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.

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One of the most interesting aspects of my particular copy of the book was that is was used, and the previous reader had scrawled some very opinionated notes in the margins throughout. While reading, I had the benefit of not only forming my own take on the advice conveyed in the book, but also of comparing it to the takeways of whoever had this book before me. Our opinions often varied, but I found his (I imagine it was a man; I don’t know why) amusing in their cynicism and wit and enlightening in their insights.

6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)

This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter.  The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:

  1. Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
  2. In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
  3. From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject

The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.

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One of the example essays included in this book still influences my writing today.

7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer

This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.

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We all have a story to tell. This book helps us learn how to best tell it.

8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman

This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.

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I credit this book with one of the most revelatory experiences of my undergraduate academic career, as well as my reading and writing life.

9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with  “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.

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This book is logically organized, beginning with the first idea a writer might have for a piece (or the lack of ideas a writer might have for a piece) and ending with the process of revision, also touching on all the steps between.

 

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Nine Must-Reads for Writers

  1. I am too easily drawn to books about writing and interviews with people talking about writing. I love hearing about it, talking about it, thinking about it, etc., but I have found that reading about topics and listening to interviews with people just talking about their lives, their stories, has inspired me far more than authors talking about the craft from the other side of it. I get bogged down with “how I’m supposed to be doing it” when I read too much about writing. I get further away from my voice that way. BUT I CANNOT help but do it from time to time b/c I love hearing people talk about how they do something, anything. It so alluring to find a formula that will work and when I over-read in that area, I start comparing myself to people who only figured out what they figured out because they struggled through it on their own. They found what works for them. Rilke’s “live the questions now” is still the best advice I’ve ever read, to “be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart.” By the way, Rilke, that is super hard!

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    1. It’s so super hard–and super poetic! I think one reason I like reading about writing is because it makes me a more critical and active reader. I can appreciate the surface aspects of an entertaining book, but also analyze the technique, style, devices, etc..

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    2. What is the process? This kind of analysis can become reductionist. If you could find a mentor who has achieved what you aspire to, and who has an understanding or your strengths and weaknesses, I think that would be valuable. These manuals are probably useful for improving the technical aspects of writing. I don’t want to unfairly judge what I haven’t seen, but they sound as inspirational as a crossword puzzle.

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      1. I think the process is different for every writer, to be honest–and I think most people would probably agree with that sentiment. The process might even vary according to the piece. The creative process is personal, be it for writing, painting, singing–whatever. It’s as individual as the artist. I wouldn’t say I look at these books as manuals to follow step-by-step, but as guides from which one could pick and choose what to take away–what works for him or her individually. Each one offers insights, advice, and information. Not all of them are inspirational, but I’d say all of them are informative.

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      2. I started following your blog because you have this honest desire to teach and help others. Offering these tools is consistent with your message. People praised Julia Child for her attention to detail and abilities as a teacher. I think you share many of those traits. She found something she loved and wanted to share with the world, then ran with it. I think it can be that simple for you.

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      3. Thank you so much. It sounds cliche, but I doubt you can imagine how meaningful this comment is to me. Especially precious is the fact that you compared me to Julia Child, because I often think of the moment in the movie Julie & Julia when Julia Child, after multiple disappointments, FINALLY gets news that her cookbook will FINALLY be published. That is my favorite scene in the whole movie, and when I feel discouraged, I summon up that scene to reinvigorate my desire to keep on keepin’ on!

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