Serious writers are also serious readers. They learn by reading how other talented writers craft a sentence or an argument, how they handle pacing and character development, and the various other elements that must be considered when writing a book.
Most writers also have some favourite, go-to books for wisdom and inspiration about writing. We polled some of our writer friends, and some of our colleagues, about their favourite books on writing. Their answers were sometimes surprising, and always eloquent. These are the books they mentioned:
“Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir came out just as I was finishing Red Star Tattoo but reading it would have saved me months, maybe even years, of rewriting. There’s so much good advice about how to tell a story in ways that are honest and compelling. But I’m very glad I started with Listen to Me: Writing Your Life Into Meaning by Lynn Lauber. I read this book less as a how-to and more as a why-to. Because the first thing you need is to have faith that it’s okay to have a voice, to tell your truth. I think I struggled with that for a long time.”
“Gabriel García Márquez and News of a Kidnapping. Here’s why: Though Márquez is known for the magical realism of his novels, News of a Kidnapping is the work of a master reporter. The book recounts, in stunning detail, a string of high-profile kidnappings ordered by Pablo Escobar in Colombia. Márquez, who counterintuitively advised aspiring writers to first learn to “say it straight,” got his own start as a newspaperman; tapping into those roots for News of a Kidnapping, Marquez reveals how permeable the membrane is between fiction and nonfiction.”
“My pick would be The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft by Robert Boynton. Reminiscent of the Paris Review interviews, you feel like you’re getting a privileged peek behind the curtain at some top-notch writers’ processes. As I remember it, one writer would tack hard copies of his drafts on the wall, then look at them from across the room through a set of binoculars turned backward, in order to give himself a sense of detachment while editing his own copy. Never tried it myself.
“Had a discussion about this book with some officemates. One of them pointed out that I appeared to be searching for a magic bullet, but there is no such process for writing. It’s all just hard work, flailing, etc. Another also liked the book but felt like it was just another alluring form of procrastination from actual writing. There it is. Apparently I should be doing more writing rather than reading.”
“Non-fiction: Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. This is the first book I read when I decided to spend more time and effort on creative non-fiction. It’s packed with practical advice (and examples) from Gutkind and his students, on everything from structure to scene reconstruction. Good, solid, helpful advice and observations.
“Fiction: Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. I’ve given away several copies of this book to aspiring writers, because, as a seasoned writing instructor, Butler knows all about the things beginning writers forget to address in their work. He’s refreshingly humble too. Most of the examples of “failed” attempts at stories come from Butler himself, demonstrating why his early drafts failed. A lot of craft books end up giving you the same advice most of the time. Much of the advice I found here is unique to this book.”
“In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway writes about his early attempts to craft a unique literary voice while struggling to support his young family in 1920’s Paris. Tender, spiteful, and always deeply vulnerable, it provides an intimate look at all the emotional tools a determined writer employs to get through the day. A little envy, a lot of discipline, and the courage to listen to your heart when your mind tells you otherwise.”
John Lekich, freelance journalist, film reviewer, and novelist
“Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing is a wonderful collection of Carol’s writing tips, developed over decades of honing her craft. Carol’s daughter and grandson gathered the material from Carol’s published works, including her novels, as well as letters, course notes, and speeches kept in the Shields archive in Ottawa. I love that Carol outlines how to ‘find time’ to write within a very busy schedule, including raising five children! My favourite tip? ‘Write as if you were spilling your story into the ear of a perfect listen, and in as direct and unmediated a way as possible.’
“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is about (among other things) the joys and frustrations of approaching life as a writer, the dangers of perfectionism, and the inspiration to be found in daily moments. The book also contains some useful tips for not feeling overwhelmed by tasks—you simply have to take them ‘bird by bird,’ which is now my time management mantra.”
Amanda Lewis, Page Two Project and Development Manager
“Eudora Welty’s The Eye of the Story, because she knows when writing rules should be bent and broken. And because she recommends the ‘elimination of waste’ in writing but also warns against being too tidy.
“And I know this is not a book, but I love a great podcast, and listening to Eleanor Wachtel draw great stories out of great storytellers in Writers & Company is both instructive and inspirational.”
Jesse Finkelstein, Page Two Principal