Booklist: On Writing

Sometimes writing is like magic. Ideas, words, come from some place outside of me and flow through my hands onto a page. I look at them in astonishment. As though someone else had written them. But most of the time, writing is work. Hard work. And talent and instinct only carry one so far.

There is a craft to writing. And if I want to tell stories that impact others, I must learn this craft. I have had the great good fortune to know some gifted writers personally. Their advice has been invaluable to me. But, I have also benefited from the teaching of authors who have generously put their thoughts about writing on paper for all of us. Here are some of my favorites.

On Writing by Stephen King I have this book in hard copy and on audio. I am listening to it right now for the 3rd or 4th time. In the first part of the book, King tells his story. In the second, he builds a “tool chest” for writers. Both parts are indispensable. Whenever I get whiny about not being able to find time or space to write, I remember King, after a long day of teaching, sitting in the utility room with his typewriter on his lap.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott Irreverent and funny, Anne Lamott is a pleasure to read. From the “shitty first draft” to publication, she is with you all the way. And every now and then she drops a passage like this:

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were gods or sorcerers. All my life I’ve felt that there was something magical about people who could get into other people’s minds and skin, who could take people like me out of ourselves and then take us back to ourselves.

Me too.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver Do not be deceived. Poets are not the only writers who will benefit from the wisdom of this Pulitzer winning author. She has much to say about nourishing our creative sensibilities and will inspire and provoke you with her words. So many quotable phrases, but this is one of the best:

For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.

The War of Art and Do The Work by Stephen Pressfield Each of these books provides an unapologetic kick in the pants and urges us to stop being willing victims of resistance, and get out there and create. The principles are applicable to artists of all types, as well as entrepreneurs, CEO’s, missionaries, anyone who has a call to do something in this world.

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me…Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White “Omit needless words.” It is one of the principles of composition in this much revered standard of grammar and good taste. It is also the practice of its authors. Succinct and elegant. Indispensable.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron Subtitled “Creativity as a Spiritual Practice”, Cameron’s book guides us on a path of recovering our creative voice. Through “morning pages” and a number of other creative practices to help us know our true hearts, she helps unleash that which is buried within.

Steering the Craft and The Wave in the Mind by Ursula LeGuinn The first is a practical guide to various elements of writing like point of view or sound (“the slither and crunch of onomatopoeia” for instance :)). The second is a collection of essays and speeches on “the writer, the reader, and the imagination”.

To me a novel can be as beautiful as any symphony, as beautiful as the sea. As complete, true, real, large, complicated, confusing, deep, troubling, soul enlarging as the sea with its waves that break and tumble, its tides that rise and ebb.

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor A marvelous look inside the mind of one of the most perceptive and eloquent writers ever to tell the peculiar stories of the south. It is philosophy as much as anything. Like her stories. Good, wise, true.

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.

Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke Candid and intimate advice from one of my very favorite poets. On art, and beauty, and finding the poetry inside oneself.