Tuesday, March 5, 2013

7 Books on Writing and Craft

When I was a young writer, I had amazing teachers. Most of them were writers I never met.

I believe books are the best teachers, and the ones I chose and loved most were those by bell hooks and James Baldwin, among others. What you learn when you're reading as a writer is that there is something about absorbing the sentences that really resonate with you and re-reading them (sometimes re-writing them in your own hand) that makes for the most adventurous education for a writer.

I'm reading The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long. I read somewhere that it was a good book and my sister gave me a copy as a gift this year. I realized when I started reading it that haven't made time to read a book about craft for a long time. There's a school of thought that suggests that writing every day is enough, but I think like any craft, you want to have a number of tools in your toolbox, not just writing and/or publishing, but also learning how to get sharper.

I had a separate meditation practice from writing daily in the mornings. Now I'm blending my meditation into my writing - I write with a timer, a free write for 15 minutes every day --  and I can already see that the words that I'm writing are much clearer. The quality is different.

Beginning and advanced writers looking for recommendations for good writing books should check out the following. As an addendum to this list, I advise writers to attend readings and speeches by writers they admire. I started doing that as a teenager because I adore hearing writers talk about their process and/or routine. I also read interviews with writers in The Paris Review whenever I get a chance. What you'll notice over time is that everyone has some similarities (routine and ritual) even if the specifics differ.

I Know What The Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers Editor Rebecca Carroll's 1994 anthology collected the wisdom on writing from black women back when copy on the back of the book referred to us as "Afro-American women writers," which gives you a sense of the time and context in which it was written and published. Still, women of color writers like June Jordan, Rita Dove, Lorene Cary and Marita Golden all talk in the book about their work and perspective as writers. It's a valuable collection because it is still unfortunately rare to read black women writers talking about their philosophies on craft. (I had to literally blow the dust off my copy, which means I need to go back to it soon, I think.)

remembered rapture: the writer at work by bell hooks

I re-read this last year after disagreeing with bell hook's take on Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie that resonated with me deeply and that I appreciated. I think most people think you have to turn your back on a whole canon of someone's work if you disagree with one thing they say now, but I think that's silly. I also needed to draw on the strength of her perspective as a black woman creator and academic. It soothed me to know that the most prolific and profound black feminist writer and teacher of our generation faced some of the barriers and confusing messages about the production of her work (she calls this the idea that one "writes too much" though she believes, as do I, that there can be no such thing, particularly for writers of color and those of us who generally write from the margins) in a marketplace that is largely only friendly to white male authors. Black woman academics, in particular, will really appreciate this one.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Vintage Contemporaries) by Edwidge Danticat
I am a big Danticat fan and I wonder why her work isn't more widely cited. I think this probably has something to do with the use of immigration in her work, and our country's fraught relationship with that. But Danticat has a lot of offer even those of us who didn't immigrate here, per se (ahem). It's an inspirational text for creatives of all types, not just writers. 

The Writer's Book of Hope : Getting from Frustration to Publication by Ralph Keyes

Ralph Keyes also the author of The Courage to Write and I loved both of these so much that I still recommend them to friends and mentors. Their titles say everything you need to know about them. They're useful reading every couple of years.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I love reading whatever Stephen King writes about writing and publication. I think people assume that he doesn't have any problems because he's internationally known and a best seller, but Stephen King -- Stephen-freaking-King! -- has his detractors in the literary establishment because he's popular. The most memorable thing I've heard him say is that he usually has more than one project going at a time - the main thing he works on in the mornings  and a "play" project in the afternoon.  That explains how he's been so incredibly productive, which I admire, even though I've probably read 1/15th of his work.

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland

I remember being really inspired by this title, but it's been a long time. 

This list could go on forever, and omits classics like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, which is also a film and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, which was my first writing book when I was in high school. The New York Times published a book of these columns on writing years ago. I also recommend checking out anything written by Roy Peter Clark and William Zinsser. Some of the blogs I really love are Men with Pens, Steven Pressfield, Nana Brew-Hammond's People Who Write and Jane Friedman's blog.

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