An Unconventional List of Must-Read Books About Writing

reading

When you think of books about writing, what do you think of? Love ’em or hate ’em, books on the art and craft of writing are everywhere; every writer seems to have their own two cents on the artistic process and what will help you bust past that writer’s block. This list of books, while ostensibly about writing, takes a bit of a different approach. There are enough book lists out there that recommend Bird by Bird or Writing Down the Bones or Stephen King’s On Writing – while they are engaging and well-written, I don’t tend to find that kind of reflection particularly inspiring for my writing life. Instead, I present an alternative list of books that I have found to be wonderfully inspiring in their own way.

The Artful Edit by Susan Bell

Writing a story is one part of the struggle; the next piece, particularly for writers who don’t have an editor at hand, is editing our own work. Susan Bell explores the art of the edit with history, interviews with authors, and exercises in objectivity, or how to see your own work as an editor would.

“But to edit is to listen, above all; to hear past the emotional filters that distort the sound of our all too human words; and to then make choices rather than judgments. As we read our writing, how can we learn to hear ourselves better?”

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert 

Disclaimer: I am a big Elizabeth Gilbert fan, and I’ve read everything she’s written. That might be why I enjoyed Big Magic so much; it’s always interesting to hear about the creative process of those you admire. I also found Big Magic to be inspiring in many different ways – Liz Gilbert talks about the pressure we put on ourselves as creative people and the split in society between the creators and “normal” people, and she suggested a more light-hearted approach to creativity that resonated with me.

“I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies – not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way around. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that if they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish. (…) Emotional pain makes me the opposite of a deep person; it renders my life narrow and thin and isolated. My suffering takes this whole thrilling and gigantic universe and shrinks it down to the size of my own unhappy head. When my personal devils take over, I can feel my creative angels retreating.”

The Journey from the Center to the Page by Jeff Davis

As writers, it is easy to disconnect from our bodies and live hunched over the keyboard. Modern life allows for much of the same – curled up on the couch, bowed over a phone or tablet, twisted into small spaces staring at bright screens. Jeff Davis offers a combination of yoga movements and philosophies to be used as a muse for authentic writing. The exercises are simple and easy to follow, and getting out of your chair and onto a mat for a few minutes each day can transform your approach to the blank page.

“Concentration, simply put, may be the gateway to transformation and to authentic writing. With faculties focused on one thing, to-do lists and yesterday’s frets slip away, the mind’s wheels slow down, and its little demons of distraction disappear. Imagination opens through your eyes that work in tandem with your fingers’ grooves on the keyboard. Nothing comes between you and the page. You are connected. You are immersed.”

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

Why put a fad-ish business book on this list? First, it’s an easy read. Second, and more importantly, Tim Ferriss has some interesting ideas about making money that could resonate for writers. For example: if you have knowledge that could be used to create an information-based product, you could use that as a basis for a business: you could write for a living. I also believe that Ferriss has sound ideas about balance and what life is really about: doing things you enjoy with people you love. Like Liz Gilbert, he espouses the idea that suffering is not the point. One thing to remember: take this book with a grain of salt. There are many ideas that work for people with a certain amount of freedom to their lives already, but there are other ideas that can be applied for anyone.

“Life doesn’t have to be so damn hard. It really doesn’t. Most people, my past self included, have spent too much time convincing themselves that life has to be hard, a resignation to 9-to-5 drudgery in exchange for (sometimes) relaxing weekends and the occasional keep-it-short-or-get-fired vacation.”

The Graves are Walking by John Kelly

This is a book about the Irish Potato Famine, and this particular book, history, and topic are not precisely the point. I picked up this book when I was first thinking about writing a novel based on this period of history. The stories in the book inspired the backgrounds of the characters in my novel and gave them a richness that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. When you’re feeling uninspired, think about something you’re interested in, and go buy a book about it (or read about it online for free). Dive deep into a topic and see what it inspires!

Happy writing!

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