There are books like A Prayer For Owen Meany and The River Why that make it impossible to stop reading, books like Lord of the Rings that pick me up and drop me in the middle of places like Mordor and Lothlorien.
But there are other types of books: the kind that I can’t read more than a few paragraphs without wanting to write. Here are my favorite five books on writing:
5. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel – the most difficult read of the five, Forster’s book (actually transcribed from lectures he gave at Cambridge) takes a scientific approach to breaking down the elements of the novel. Academic and deliberate, this one isn’t for the faint of heart.
“We shall all agree that the fundamental aspect of the novel is the story-telling aspect…”
4. John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel – Any poker player who has read Gus Hansen’s book, Every Hand Revealed knows how intriguing it is when someone who is good at something walks you through the process step by step. Steinbeck’s book does exactly that: these are the journal entries he kept before each day’s writing session while working on East of Eden (the greatest novel ever written).
“So, we go into the last week and I may say I am very much frightened. I guess it would be hard to be otherwise – all of these months and years aimed in one direction and suddenly it is over and it seems that the thunder has produced a mouse.”
3. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life – Barely bigger than a pamphlet, nearly every page of my copy has something underlined. A must read for any writer.
“Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs.; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.”
2. Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water – An inspired book about the nature of art and the inherent difficulties (or impossibilities) of labeling good art as secular or sacred.
“I knew that if I felt anything while I was writing about Joshua’s death, the scene would end up in the wastepaper basket. Emotion can come before writing, and after writing, but it must not be present during writing.”
1. Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird – This book changed my life. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s true. The best advice I’ve ever heard on writing comes in this simple quote:
“Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and then let the chips fall where they may.”
Honorable Mentions – Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, Sol Stein’s books on writing (although his insistence on only ever quoting examples from his own books is rather annoying and egocentric).
Help! I need some good books on writing. What’s your favorite?