You’re an aspiring writer. You want to sit down with a journal and a pen and watch the words flow freely from your mind and heart in perfect harmony. You want to create a masterpiece in the likeness of your favorite novel. But you’re stuck. You aren’t confident that you are growing as a writer.
My rule of thumb is: When I can’t write, I read. When your pen is failing you, the best thing you can do to keep your growth in a steady upward trajectory is to read. Read and read and read. But what books are going to make the most of your time? I recommend these three brilliant books that are not only told with superb style, but are incredibly helpful aids to writers.
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I cannot stress enough what this book has done for my journey as a writer. I read it when I was just starting out, but it continues to shape the way I view the craft itself. My dad, who has a book for everything, gave me this one when I asked him for a book that would teach me to write. As he handed it to me he said “Read the part about his desk first.” Conveniently, the part about the desk was on the back cover, so I read it. Instantly I knew two things: 1) that I would read the whole book and 2) that I would obey its every word. (Of course, there is lenience in that statement as I’ve watched my own voice develop more and more, but in the beginning it was immensely helpful practice to heed King’s advice down to the nitty gritty.)
This is not a book on grammar, plot structure, or theme – although it touches on all those things. No, it is a book on writing itself. You learn how to see writing for what it is, as the book implores you to write authentically with humor and life. You learn to be vivid and truthful and creative. But best of all, you learn to love writing. It is relationship advice that will project you into a deep love affair with the pen. You delve into the elements of form and style, of grammar and editing, and even a bit of King’s personal writing journey, all while falling in love with this craft that you have set your heart on. And I promise that King’s crude, genius, slightly arrogant tone will humor you into believing that what he says is true – that writing is, indeed, magic.
2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
My favorite thing about Anne Lamott is that she only became famous for her writing after she wrote a book about not getting famous for her writing. This is that book, and it is a ride. In her funny and moody voice, Lamott gives you practical tools that will make you want to sit down and write without stopping. She teaches you to reject the inner critic in the name of writing what must be written.
One of my favorite pieces of advice from Bird by Bird is “Writing a Present” (Part 4, Chapter 1) about turning your writing into a gift for someone. She says, “I wrote for an audience of two whom I loved and respected, who loved and respected me. So I wrote for them as carefully and soulfully as I could – which is, needless to say, how I wish I could write all the time.” Since I first read this advice, I have written essays and short stories for friends and family on birthdays and Christmas and other holidays. It adds a richness to my writing that only comes when I am writing for someone I love.
Of course, that is just one nugget of wisdom out of many you will find in Bird by Bird. Her reverence of and feistiness about writing will entertain you as well as teach you.
3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
I’m not going to lie to you. Annie Dillard is kind of a downer. She is no pep-talker. I read The Writing Life and wondered if I’d ever make a decent writer at all. I cannot recommend her to you without offering my own opinion: writing is a much more optimistic endeavor than she makes it out to be. I believe anyone can write if they are willing to put the work into perfecting the craft. It is not a matter of predestination, but of free will. Dillard describes the writing process as long and tiresome with little result. “This is why,” she says, “many experienced writers urge young men and women [who want to be writers] to learn a useful trade.”
I do not recommend Dillard as a source of motivation, but for her mastery of illustration. She builds arguments about the writer’s life by creating images in your mind. Such artful technique is hard to find in the world of academic writing, which predominantly consists of a dull, straightforward, and wordy style. Learning from her is particularly useful to those who write for scientific or law journals or any other research writing. (For more information on writing artfully in the academic fields, I recommend Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword. The book is practical and helpful, but ironically enough, not stylish. At least in my opinion.)
In my favorite example of Dillard’s use of imagery, she describes the process of free-writing as a “line of words” that “feels for cracks in the firmament. The line of words is heading out past Jupiter this morning. The big yellow planet and its white moons spin. The line of words speeds past Jupiter and its cumbrous, dizzying orbit; it looks neither to the right nor the left… Right now, you are flying.” Dillard’s approach has a pessimistic tone, but a genius approach. Her voice is strong, mature, developed, perfected.
Reading these books will give you a trove of wisdom. They are incredible teachers for the aspiring writer. I hope that you will read them and be encouraged to journey through the writer’s process with courage.
Let me know in the comments below some of your favorite books on writing! What has helped you through your writer’s journey?