It probably goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: I have a lot of books. I have a lot of books about a lot of things and sometimes I’m pretty erratic when it comes to what kinds of books I choose. If it looks and sounds interesting, I’ll buy it, and hopefully it’ll be good. There’s one kind of book, though, that I can be picky about: books on writing. I can’t just have any book that spouts off “rules” or “must-dos” or what have you about writing and being a writer; I need a book that speaks to me. I need a book that I’ll want to read over and over because it’s inspiring and educational, as well as downright interesting.
I have some books leftover from writing courses in school that are good for quickly referencing (grammar books, mostly), but those are on the bottom shelf of our largest bookcase, not important in the first steps of the craft. On my desk, I keep the three books that I’ve read at least once, loved enough to buy, and plan on rereading until they’re all worn out.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott / One reason I love Bird by Bird is the way it’s broken into different aspects of writing; it almost looks like a textbook if you flip through the chapters, simply titled “Dialogue,” “Short Assignments,” and “Plot Treatment,” but I promise, with others titled “Polaroids” and “Jealousy,” this isn’t just a prescriptive textbook telling you how to write the “right way.” There’s story to it, heart and soul. You can tell that Anne Lamott genuinely wants her readers to write and to succeed, whatever that ends up meaning. You can tell she wants them to grow, and that passion keeps me coming back to this book when I’m feeling stagnant and blocked.
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland / The thing I love most about this book is how timeless it seems. It was first published in 1938, the oldest of my three books, and it still strikes such a resonant chord with me. I don’t normally write in books, but this one has so many passages underlined (in pencil), so many words I felt necessary to take note of and remember. I have to admit I know very little about Brenda Ueland, but either she really knows what she’s talking about, or she’s very convincing. I love her approach of simply getting down the truth. It’s a book that inspires me to do nothing more than brain dump to start and to edit later on. It reminds me not to nitpick as I go because that holds me back (a habit I’ve struggled with for a long time).
On Writing by Stephen King / I’ve read this more times than a lot of books, of any genre. It’s fascinating because it’s “a memoir of the craft,” so it not only lets me be a creeper on Stephen King’s life (such a fan), but also learn from it. Of course, sometimes I think I should have been a little more like him earlier on, sending out writing submissions at about 13 years old, but we can’t all think be that proactive, I guess. On Writing was the first book I read…on writing, and in a way it’s probably my favorite. It’s the one I go back to the most, the one I feel most motivated after reading. But it’s also the most intimidating, coming from a man with dozens of books under his belt and plenty left to come, I’m sure. Regardless, it still makes a fascinating reference and lesson, and I expect I’ll read it about a dozen more times before I die.
I’m sure there are myriad other excellent books out there about writing, and I’ve read some of them, but these three have always stuck with me the most. However, even though I’m making these suggestions, I want to remind you (and myself): reading about writing isn’t going to make you productive–writing is.