Though I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child, it was only after I started writing my doctoral dissertation that I started to read about writing more seriously. Guides for fiction writers are just as useful for academic writers, and they provide insight on various kind of technical and emotional problems. Here are five of the books I found most useful, and that I still turn to when I am in need of encouragement.
- Natalie Goldberg. Probably everyone of a certain age with writing aspirations has turned to Writing Down the Bones. Though it contains some helpful ideas for technical exercises, the strength of the book lies in its encouragement to the writer to go on writing through ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas. Like meditation, the emphasis is not on whether you are a good or bad writer, but learning to simply bear yourself while you write. One of the things I think Goldberg is acutely right about is that one should not use writing to get love.
- Annie Lamott. I should have placed Annie Lamott first, because I think she would appreciate that. I found Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird after Goldberg, which is the only reason I put her second on the list. Again, as with any personal guide by a practicing writer, the book is not primarily about technique. What I find most useful about Lamott is that she is not afraid to confront the burning rage at the world that being a writer induces. When you are a writer you inevitably notice what others do not notice, perhaps do not even want to hear, and then you have to convince them that they want to buy your carefully articulated vision of their stupidity and blindness. Lamott deals with the reality that others (writers or not) get on with their success in the world and that this can make you feel like a complete moron for the compulsion to persist with your attempt to do something different and achieve some kind of social approval for doing so. Its delusional. But, as Lamott demonstrates through her guide, it has an important purpose in the world (something that isn’t always clear in Goldberg, for example). In other words, writing isn’t the best thing you can do with your time, but if you are a writer then don’t allow your pettiness, jealousy and insecurity to keep you from writing.
- Stephen King. When I tell people about this book they express some sense of astonishment that a serious writer could find something useful in King’s writing advice, but that reaction is a strange case of holding a man’s success against him. The first half of the book is about how King came to be a writer and I find that section of the book as useful as the second half, where he discloses routines, techniques and solutions (including an example of what one of his manuscripts looks like before and after editing). This is an incredibly generous book. Many writers like to preserve the sense that their work comes to them mystically, and King’s book works in the opposite direction. Here you see what it is really like to become a writer from apparently unpromising ground. We like to think anyone can be a writer, but increasingly, writers are the products of some particular social and economic conditions. King’s book reminds us that actually our first thought (anyone can be a writer) should be true, and if you follow his advice it might become true for you.
- Robert Boice. You’ve probably never heard of Robert Boice. He writes books for academics about how to write with less resistance like How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency and Professors as Writers. What is useful about his work is that he takes you through all aspects of your resistance and blocks to writing, from time-management issues (thinking, for example that you need large blocks of time in which to write) to your self-talk about your writing as you are doing it (I regularly think, as I write, ‘the editor is going to say it’s not good enough’). Boice’s insights into the process of writing come partly via meditation, and so he has something in common with Goldberg, but he is more precise and technical about how you can actually ‘meditate-write’. What might surprise you is how much he advises you to ‘not write’ as part of the process of writing.
- David Bayles and Ted Orland. The last book I want to mention here is actually not about writing specifically, but creative work in general. Bayle and Orland’s book Art and Fear covers some of the same general ground as the others (fear, anxiety, insecurity), but is particularly good on challenging you to think about what your art is for and what relation it has to the world in which it is produced. Art is supposed to be a sphere of life that can ‘ignore’ the world in favour of its own private vision, but we also know that art is made in and ‘for’ the world, so how can those things both be true? Bayles and Orland tackle that issue without either setting up straw men (the artist as hero, the world as rabble) or denying the existential loneliness of art-making as a way of life (you may indeed be making art in a world that doesn’t yet have the conditions to understand it).
There are more books I will post on later, including Thomas Merton’s Echoing Silence, Chögyam Trungpa’s True Perception, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, but for now, I hope this gives you some nourishment for your writing.