My favorite books on writing, pt. 1

During bouts of procrastination, I often read books on writing, which fill two purposes depending on my mood: they either inspire me to get back to writing, or make me feel like a writer without actually writing. Despite the latter’s drawback, I’ve gained a lot from books on writing. They’ve helped me shape what good habits I maintain, provided doses of confidence and inspiration, and taught me useful methods for improving my craft and developing my style.

Writing books vary in quality and content. Though I have stuck to the most widely read books in the genre, I do think some are wortheir than others. But since writing will improve your craft far more than reading about it, I hope this entry helps you select the most appropriate book(s) for your particular struggles, then use the rest of your time for writing.

Generally writing books can be divided into two kinds: inspirational and technical. The former category deals with harnessing the writer’s elusive muse and cultivating it, so that you can be creative at your conveience and not the muse’s. The latter category offers tips for clarity, proper expression, and converting the writer’s ideas into the most concise means possible. Inspirational books are primarily for the writer of fiction, technical books for nonfiction. But there’s plenty of crossover between the two and no book I’ve read lies completely in one category. A fiction writer, for example, could still gain a great deal from Zinsser’s On Writing Well, despite its subtitle, “An informal guide to writing nonfiction.”

Nonetheless, I’ve divided this entry into two sections and separated the books depending on which way they lean.

Inspirational

Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande

Of all the books I’ve read, Brande’s was the least owned copy according to users of librarything.com. That makes it the most underrated book on this list.

The title is an accurate description of Brande’s aims — through gradual steps she describes a program to shape the reader from an amateur or struggling writer into a confident one. She claims this can be accomplished without composing anything that can’t be completed in a day. Writing in a direct and authoritative style, Brande makes a convincing case.

Her program attempts to bring the unconscious (the source of true creativity and originality) into harmony with the conscious (the critical, organizing faculty). Writing with either on its own is insufficient. The writer must work to lasso the unconscious, train it to work for you by following Brande’s regimen. It’s a uniquely prescriptive program: write first thing in the morning until it becomes effortless. Then write at scheduled times without breaking your pledge to yourself. Then set down to compose something in a single setting and never stop to edit. Repeat final step.

Becoming a Writer was published in 1934, making it the oldest book on this list. Psychology was a nascent science, but it’s still remarkably relevant and filled with insights about the workings of the unconscious that still ring true.

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

I gave away my copy of WDTB and didn’t have a chance to reread it for this entry so my thoughts aren’t as clear on this one.

WDTB falls heavily under the “inspirational” category — I would describe as “new age.” Goldberg believes that the truest thoughts are those accessed when the critical filter is silent. She seems to be describing something akin to a zen state, and I don’t think she would reject this description given her references to meditation and Buddhism.

While poets might find WDTB most useful, I remember thinking highly of this book despite never writing poetry. I agree with her general philosophy on writing, which experience has corroborated time and again. My best stories, articles, and ideas were generated without thought, during a stream of writing long after I had begun, as if I had hypnotized the inner critic. Goldberg recommends writing fast, never letting your pen leave the page, and committing a portion of your writing to a journal that you never intend to publish. This will train your critic to shut up and shed light on counter-productive anxieities.

I don’t remember many other specific suggestions Goldberg provides to reach this state, but I do remember liking it a lot more than I thought I would.

Bird by Bird, Ann Lamont

The first book on writing I read and one of the most popular in the genre, Bird by Bird is valuable for artists of all stripes.

Lamont develops an open, honest rapport with the reader from the start. She writes in the informal style of a close friend and earns the reader’s trust when she admits to being riddled with anxiety — an emotion all writers can probably relate to. Her task is to put the self-conscious writer at ease. If there’s a motto to this book, it’s “don’t worry.” We’re myopic, we hate ourselves, we’re filled with doubt. And that’s perfectly natural.

While she offers plenty of useful advice on improving characters and developing ideas, her tips on conquering your own psychology is the reason the book is so widely read. The story behind the book’s title distills its message — we must work to train ourselves to focus on smaller, manageable tasks (one bird at a time), and not get lost in the bigger picture.

On Writing, Stephen King

This is a slyly apt title for King’s part-memoir, part-traditional writing book. Writing is his subject, to be sure. But the first section of the book, titled “C.V.,” is a kind of annotated biography. I’ve only read one of King’s books, The Shining, and very few memoirs, but his handling of this personal material makes me want to read more of both. He jumps episodically from one formative moment to another. Some are amusing, others moving, a few troubling.

His candor is touching — some passages nearly brought me to tears, like when he received the news that Carrie, his first novel, was going to be published. If you pick up this book, do not skip this section, even though it’s not a “how-to” in the traditional sense. There are a few moments of imparted wisdom and there are also moments that inspire. But more than that, it’s simply a good read.

Despite there being no narrative thread, the section that offers more explicit writing advice (“Toolbox”) has a similar feel. King seems to have selected some subjects important to writing fiction, wrote essay-length entries on them, and ordered them in a semi-logical fashion. Reading them in order will take you from the nuts and bolts of your toolbox all the way to getting a literary agent once you’ve written some respectable stories.

There’s plenty of useful nuggets scattered throughout, like this one: “the time we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it” (I wonder what King’s opinion on this entry would be). And an equal number that have been suggested in numerous other writing books in a more systematic fashion — active over passive voice, beware of adverbs, etc. That being said, King’s writing is so pleasant and his passion conveyed so convincingly that even the well-trodden advice takes on an immediacy that made me want to return to the keyboard.

(Part 2 will continue with the “Technical” books)

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