Essential Books Every Writer Should Read. Twice.
Writers: These 3 Books Need to be on Your Shelves
By Melissa DeVrieze
Some cursory research reveals there are 50,000+ books on writing available. A quick scan brings up more than a few titles declaring that the advice contained within is “the last you’ll ever need.”
This is nonsense.
The last book on writing you’ll ever need will be the one you’re reading when you exit this earthly realm. Is that what these titles are saying? Are they saying you’ll die after reading them? Because gosh.
These three books are not the last books on writing you’ll ever need, but they top our list of favorites from the memoir-cum-manual realm. Each comes from an accomplished writer, inviting their ilk to peek into their past and learn from their process.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)
Bird by Bird is for those who know how to write and are planning to write. We were just about to sit down and write. We must finish up some laundry and do the dishes and learn absolutely everything about the stock market first, but then we’re going to write. Oh, look! Is that an excuse? We should go investigate. But then we’re getting some writing done.
This is a book for dawdlers, full of harsh truths kindly delivered. Lamott’s humor and transparency underline every page, where she doles out advice on dealing with procrastination, deadlines, jealousy, insecurity, and other pesky obstacles so you can get out of the perpetual state of wanting to write into the land of having written.
|“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)
Stephen King has published five non-fiction books, 63 novels, and written more than 200 short stories. The man has a published word count that exceeds 10 million words. To be clear, that is A LOT. That is, at his stated pace of 2000 words per day, approaching 14 years of daily writing. He doesn’t seem nearly as tired as he should.
On Writing is the class of book that even non-writers (or Constant Readers, in King-speak) enjoy because it winds its path between entertaining autobiography and pragmatic advice.
Some of the stops on King’s path to publication won’t be familiar to today’s writer (news of his first book’s publication was sent by telegram, for example). Still, he’s packed in plenty of evergreen, this-is-how-you-do-it details, including an annotated comparison of his pre- and post-revision writing, grounding his conceptual lessons in a practical framework.
|“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Zen in the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury)
If you read Zen in the Art of Writing and don’t become obsessed with it, check your CO₂ detector because something is wrong. Ray Bradbury loves writing; he loves the blank page and the mess that comes in the middle and hacking it all to pieces once he’s done. Over the course of eleven essays, he shows the reader—you, as it were—how it’s possible to love both the art and the act of writing ab ovo usque ad mala (from beginning to end).
Each essay in the collection explores a distinct theme, weaving in Bradbury’s personal narrative and philosophy. You won’t find technical pedagogy or strong opinions about adverbs anywhere inside; it’s not a how-to so much as a why-to.
Make no mistake, the how-to is in there, just not in the paint-by-numbers way you might expect. There’s no art in painting by number, and Bradbury is art’s most ardent, unblushing enthusiast. Or, as he puts it, he’s “not embarrassed at circuses.” If we may be so bold, we predict after reading this book, you, too, will rise and run when the calliope sounds.
|“This is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle as an Irish police report once put it.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing