I own nineteen books about—or related to—writing, not counting the big fat Houghton Mifflin Dictionary that I rarely use since I now have the dictionary app on my iPhone. It’s quicker to grab my phone to look up a word than it is to take the pile of paper and whatnot off the top of my dictionary so I can riffle through its gossamer pages. Don’t get me wrong: I love my dictionary, but there are fewer ways to get sidetracked using the “one word at a time” method, and my phone app has the added bonus of increasing my vocabulary by displaying a Word of the Day. Today’s word is “phthisis,” which means “a wasting away.”
My nineteen books about writing are not necessarily wasting away, but there is a fine layer of misuse gathered on top of them. And while I was making note of their titles, I saw that the spines on a few show no signs of having been disturbed in any way—still stiff and pristine—and their pages have not been dog-eared or highlighted.
Several of these books were given to me by fellow writers who thought I would enjoy reading them, or find them helpful. While I did not purchase all of these books, I did buy many of them during moments of despair, or hope, or both.
They are, in no particular order and in defiance of APA bibliography format:
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition
- Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, by Philip Gerard
- Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard
- Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer
- What it Is, by Lynda Barry
- Naked, Drunk, and Writing, by Adair Lara
- Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus
- You Know You’re a Writer When… by Adair Lara
- Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
- Beyond the Writers’ Workshop, by Carol Bly
- Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
- Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington
- The Elements of Style (Illustrated,) by Strunk, White & Kalman
- Thinking About Memoir, by Abigail Thomas
- Writing Alone and With Others, by Pat Schneider
- Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose
- The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner
- Eats Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss
Have I read them all? Um, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that question. Have they been helpful in any way? Sure, with a special shout out to Thinking About Memoir, by Abigail Thomas, which provides some wonderful prompts and exercises. I scribbled in the margin on almost every page, planting ideas that I will harvest for future essays. One example: “Write two pages of mistaking something for something else.” This called to mind an event in my childhood: when I mistook a rounded scoop of butter on a stack of pancakes for vanilla ice cream, and put the whole thing in my mouth. Imagine my shock and disappointment.
Here’s another one: “Write two pages of what you didn’t plan to do.” Only two pages? I could write a lot more than that!
Another shout out to What It Is (subtitled: Do You Wish You Could Write?) by Lynda Barry. It’s part graphic novel and part memoir, full of color and questions, featuring a creativity book that requires: “a three ring binder, 100 sheets of lined paper, a pen you like, and 30 minutes.” Barry then guides you through choosing images (a car, someone else’s mother, etc.), and placing yourself in the scene with those images.
Say I choose my best friend from high school’s mother as my image. Now, the questions that will allow me to expand the image and add details:
Where are you? In her kitchen.
Why are you there? I’m hanging out after school.
Is there anyone else in the image? My friend’s father, who is polite, but distant, and my friend.
How old are you? Sixteen.
And so on…until I am ready to write in the present tense about what is happening, with the timer set for seven minutes. Great fun, and productive too.
Other books I’d like to mention individually:
In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose breaks it all down: words, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, details, etc., and ends with a list of books “to be read immediately.” I’ve become a much more appreciative reader, and perhaps a more experimental writer, after reading this book. How many of her must-reads have I read? Not nearly enough.
The Forché and Gerard book delivers its promise of “instruction and insights” on writing creative nonfiction. This book addresses “the art, the craft, and the business” of writing nonfiction, and includes a few writing exercises too. A collection of essays in the final third of the book—written by writers who know their stuff—makes for inspiring and entertaining reading. No matter what type of nonfiction you’re interested in, this book has it covered.
Crammed in between all my writing books is a slim volume I borrowed from a teacher in my MFA program. I tried to read it a while ago and had to put it down. Also by Abigail Thomas, this book is called A Three Dog Life: A Memoir. I love Thomas’s writing, and the reason I had to put it down was personal—she writes about a terrible accident that befell her husband, and a friend of mine had just lost her husband when I started the book, and it was all too much.
But a couple of years passed, and my love of Thomas’s writing drew me back. This part leapt off the page and took my breath away:
I didn’t start writing until I was forty-seven. I had always wanted to write but thought you needed a degree, or membership in a club nobody had asked me to join. I thought God had to touch you on the forehead, I thought you needed to have something specific to say, something important, and I thought you needed all that laid out from the get-go. It was a long time before I realized that you don’t have to start right, you just have to start. Put pen to paper, allow yourself the freedom to write badly, to get it wrong, stop looking over your own shoulder.
Thomas writes about the “know-it-all voice” that plagued her in the beginning, with taunts of “you idiot…what makes you think you can write.” But she finally created a story that, she says, was “more important than my ego, and the know-it-all voice that told me not to bother held no sway.” She urges writers to disregard that voice every time they sit down to write, and to “forget everything unnecessary” so they can see things as if for the first time.
With all due respect to the other writers whose work fills my shelves, Thomas’s advice means the most to me. Maybe it will resonate with anyone who has ever hesitated to say “I’m a writer.”
If you think, as I did, that reading books about writing will inspire you, go ahead and read. But do what Abigail Thomas says after you’ve read a couple of them—allow yourself the freedom to get it wrong first, and then keep at it until you get better.