Who doesn’t love to hear road-tested writing advice from the professionals who’ve been there and had success along the way? Many writers can recite entire passages of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Stephen King’s On Writing aloud, as they’re often the go-to books for writers seeking support. But there are some equally important, lesser known guides that writers should make no haste to get that offer unique wisdom you won’t find on every list:
Wait a minute, you say, is this even a writing book? Oh my friends, it very much is, especially when you remember that writing is an art form whose medium happens to be the alphabet, rather than paint or sculpting clay. The authors don’t offer any “how-to” writing advice, but they offer a treasure trove of important reminders about what it means to have the identity of writer/artist, how to handle the vulnerability of the craft, and to stick to it through all the odds: “In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” This book will remind you why you write, which is quite possibly the most important step in committing to a writing practice.
Not only does this have one of the best titles for a book ever, it’s full of incredibly practical advice for the essayist and memoir writer—it doesn’t get much more revealing than writing about one’s own life, after all. Lara, a beloved former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, uses her signature wit and wisdom to teach you how to shape the stories of your life into compelling writing that keeps and captures readers’ attention. “Writing about your life can be like clearing a choked up waterway: you hack and tug until the water trickles through.”
Editors, teachers and writing coaches know that lots of people want to write, but fewer people actually commit to the practice and follow through. This little gem of a book, originally published in 1938, feels like listening to a scholarly grandmother, at turns stern and tender, as she sits you on her knee and reminds you that everyone has talent and imagination, but that it requires work to express it. It is startlingly timely, despite its age. “Of course, in fairness, I must remind you of this: we writers are the most lily-livered of all craftsmen. We expect more, for the most peewee efforts, than any other people… you must practice not perfunctorily, but with all your intelligence and love.”
It’s easy to forget that the practice of writing stories has been around long before Gutenberg’s printing revolution. Not so far back as all that, you’ll find one of the most formative, and still relevant books on how to write plot, written by the author of A Room With a View in 1927. Aspects of the novel explains the difference between stories without real direction, and those which adds up to a great plot—a story that a reader can’t put down without finding out what happens next. “If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?” …A plot demands intelligence and memory also…The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends.”
In this lovely, intelligent book, Dillard, an amazing novelist and essayist in her own right, uses her own keen analysis of literature to discuss that writing is more than an art or a craft, but a way of life. She reminds writers that it is not enough to take a few classes or read a few books, but necessary to immerse oneself in observation of the world. At the same time, she weaves practical information about the structure and function of fiction throughout her book. It’s a deep, layered, philosophical book that will make any reader a better writer simply for having read it: “Since words necessarily refer to the world, as paint does not, literary contexts must be more responsible to the actual world than painting contexts must be. In all the arts, coherence in a work means that the relationship among parts—the jointed framework of the whole—is actual, solid, nailed down.”