Best Books on Writing

This is a collection of some of the (most of) books I’ve read to help me along with writing the memoir and other personal essays and stories over the years. Great stuff.

 The Eleventh Draft: ​Craft and the Writing Life 11th_draftfrom the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Frank Conroy

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick

Description:Vivian Gornick presents readers with examples of some of the best essays and memoirs of the past century, analyzing how the idea of the self has changed. Gornick explores the truth speaker in works by Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, and Oscar Wilde, and discusses how to recognize truth in your own work.

Published in 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Description:The author of the memoirs The Liars’ Club (Viking, 1995), Cherry (Viking, 2000), and Lit (Harper, 2009) draws from decades of experience as a writer, reader, and teacher to spotlight this complex and powerful form of storytelling. “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” she writes in the preface. Including unique insights and examples of the author’s personal favorites in the genre, The Art of Memoir provides a humorously candid examination of the literary form Karr has influenced over the past twenty years.

Published in 2015 by Harper

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl

Description:“A writer is, first and last, a reader.” Patricia Hampl’s collection of essays explores the depths of writing created from the most personal memories—in works by Anne Frank, Czeslaw Milosz, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and others—and provides insightful reflections on her own writing life as a memoirist.

Published in 1999 by Norton

Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Larry W. Phillips, editor

Description:​ “All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time​.” This book is a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s comments on writing and reflections about his own process, gathered from his stories, essays, letters, and interviews. Hemingway’s insights offer helpful advice to writers on the craft of writing, work habits, and the writing life.

Published in 1999 by Scribner

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington

Description:Teacher and memoirist Judith Barrington offers practical advice drawn from years of personal experience on how to overcome difficulties, and take risks when writing your own memoir. The guide covers everything from questions about truth and ethics to craft, and each chapter concludes with writing exercises.

Published in 2002 by Eight Mountain Press

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Description:Author Steven Pressfield offers a practical guide to identify the enemy within and create a “battle plan” to overcome the obstacles faced in creative endeavors.

Published in 2012 by Black Irish Entertainment

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Writing Advice, Sites, Writers, and Links

Hemingway
Hemingway
I’m buckling down now that I have found all the information I wanted to boost me into actually sitting my ass down in the chair and outlining and piecing and writing the memoir bits that will, so help me God, come together someday. I spent the day researching basically, and then I got caught up in writing tips and advice and blunt honesty from author blogs, editor blogs and sites, writers, memoir writers, professors and teachers and other bloggers alike, and I, for now, have come up with a delightful collection I am going to print out and keep on my desk with me for motivation and, well, common sense. And this delightful collection I am sharing with you.

Ass. In. Chair. These words are coming from these people along with notes I took from writing podcasts, such as Debra Gwartney‘s podcast over at Tin House called “When the Action is Hot, Write Cool.” Here are just some of the things she said in my notes that hit home, that inspire me and turn me in the right direction. Writing a memoir is fucking overwhelming. There’s just so much.

So here’s some of Debra Gwartney’s words to inspire you right in the gut:

Pull them in don’t force them to see how bad the trauma was
–very off-putting
No over emotion
Convey emotion w/ a matter of fact tone and highly controlled language

Let readers feel for themselves not be instructed by you

Can’t be just about what happened

You have to focus on recitation of events but use EVENT AS PRY BAR TO OPEN UP AND ILLUMINATE THE DYNAMIC–REWRITE IT THAT WAY, FIGURE IT OUT

How you engage the reader, not just what happened

Something else has to happen to resonate

Don’t shove trauma into readers face to say how bad it was

Don’t demand they recognize the horror
–admirable elemtent –matter of fact in worst part, take breath away images, perfect verbs, no excess; pacing slows down, open up w/ great precision and care, avoid chaos you were feeling I the moment, you want the control of the narrator; CURIOSITY NOT DEFENSIVENESS; not contrived but taut, stretched, few images, careful verbs/words (when action is hot write cool)
Trust language and images you pick, let readre feel for herself
FLATTEN IT OUT, IT’S NOT THIS OH MY GOD, IT’S MATTER OF FACT
-here it is, go, don’t embellish what day it is blah blah blah
PRECISE DETAILS
Those images, very sparse
Don’t overload w/ images, be selective
SLOWER PACE, let them be in the moment

Avoid overwrought description–STAY OUT OF SENTIMENTALITY CAMP

POWER OF MOMENT COMES UP FROM UNDERNEATH SOMEWHERE

Indicate to reader –experience-not what the essay is about, essay is about …..

By writing this way, they know something even larger is happening–the point of the essay

NO ADVERBS

“I FRANTICALLY did this….”
No bodily functions******

NO NO NO CRYING–everyone will assume, you don’t have to tell that

“YOU HAVE TO NORMALIZE THE INCREDIBLE”

Take the emotion out, don’t add to
in essays–could use second person to distance self

RECORD THE PANIC BUT DON’T ALLOW THE WRITING TO BECOME PANICKED

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Memoir Tips, Quotes, & Books

Working on my memoir, I’ve turned to many, many (many many, too many) books with tips on how to get started, organized, and inspired.  I also read a lot of what other authors say about the process and will share quotes here, as well.  I’ll begin with my favorite quote, well, one of them.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love questions themselves like locked rooms or books written in very foreign tongues.  Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  –Rainer Maria Rilke

So here’s a list of the books on writing creative nonfiction/memoir that I’ve found to be the most helpful.  Sadly none of them are writing my book for me.

I realize I’m giving away the fact that I’m desperate and may have no life,  but hopefully  you’ll find the list helpful.  Ernest Hemingway I believe said that you only need to find one true sentence.  That’s the toughest part about writing I think.

Here’s a picture of my writing journal that I keep notes, quotes, Read More

Writing Tips and Quotes

Here is a list of many essays, articles, quotes, and links on writing advice, tips, theory, and thought.

faulkner_publicity_san(from 23 Tips from Famous Writers)

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.” ― William Faulkner

“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.” ― Joss Whedon

Ray Bradbury

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ― Ray Bradbury

“One doesn’t become an artist overnight. First you have to be crushed, to have your conflicting points of view annihilated. You have to be wiped out as a human being in order to be born again as an individual. You have to be carbonized and mineralized in order to work upwards from the last common denominator of the soul. You have to go beyond ity in order to feel from the very roots of your being.” ——The Tropic of Capricorn

“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it–don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist–but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.” –Hemingway

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” ― Alan Watts

Tell It Slant: How to Write a Wise Poem (poetry foundation): “The essence of poetry is the unique view—the unguessed relationship, suddenly manifest. Poetry’s eye is always aslant, oblique,” says poet Josephine Jacobsen. What I am arguing for is a degree of obliqueness sufficient to allow the mind to rest on something else, something unexpected. To be oblique is not the same as to be opaque. Obliqueness refers to angles and slopes, to geometry that is not parallel. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Dickinson reminds.

Czeslaw Milosz said, “To write a wise poem one must know more than what is expressed in it. Consciousness leaves every means of expression behind. Hence the regret that we will remain sillier in human memory than we were at the moments of our acutest comprehension.”

How to Be a Bad Writer (Harriet poetry blog):

Check out this post from This Recording that collects “on writing” statements from a number of writers, with some cool photos. Here are Langston Hughes and John Ashbery’s entries. Follow the link for the rest!

Patricia Spears Jones (and she loves her blues) and her BLOG

Writers on Writing: 12 Writers Discuss the Writing Process (like KNOW YOUR GENRE!):

  • Donald E. Westlake
    “In the most basic way, writers are defined not by the stories they tell, or their politics, or their gender, or their race, but by the words they use. Writing begins with language, and it is in that initial choosing, as one sifts through the wayward lushness of our wonderful mongrel English, that choice of vocabulary and grammar and tone, the selection on the palette, that determines who’s sitting at that desk. Language creates the writer’s attitude toward the particular story he’s decided to tell.” (January 2001)
  • Elie Wiesel
    “Acutely aware of the poverty of my means, language became obstacle. At every page I thought, ‘That’s not it.’ So I began again with other verbs and other images. No, that wasn’t it either. But what exactly was that it I was searching for? It must have been all that eludes us, hidden behind a veil so as not to be stolen, usurped and trivialized. Words seemed weak and pale.” (June 2000)

Advice on Writing: the collected wisdom including books on the art by famous writers (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Didion, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and other literary icons.)

“Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.” –Henry Miller

Miller begins by relaying his journey of discovery, that essential and infinite process that helps us transmute information into knowledge and wisdom:

Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become the path himself.

I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer in the ordinary sense of the word. I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on. Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself. It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process. It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic’: significance, purposelessness, infinitude.

From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware there is no goal. … With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.

“Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”  –EB White —

In one, predictably, White remains true to the book’s overarching ethos, reminiscent of David Ogilvy’s famous 1982 memo on writing, and makes a case for clarity:

Dear Mrs. –

[…]

There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

Zadie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”  

John Steinbeck on writing (taken from brainpickings)

steinbeck1

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

Annie Dillard: “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”

Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. anniedillardYou make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. 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.

Anne Lamott: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

jack-kerouac

Jack Kerouac’s Belief & Techniques/Rules for Spontaneous Prose:

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house

4. Be in love with yr life

5. Something that you feel will find its own form

6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind

7. Blow as deep as you want to blow

8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind

9. The unspeakable visions of the individual

10. No time for poetry but exactly what is

11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you

13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog

16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

19. Accept loss forever

20. Believe in the holy contour of life

21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better

23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

29. You?re a Genius all the time

30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

(taken from LitDrift)–and I have these rules taped to my kitchen cabinet

Margaret Atwood’s 10 Ideas for Writer:

She offers inspiring writers some practical (and perhaps not-so-practical) tips:

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.Canadian author Atwood poses for a portrait in Toronto

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but –essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a –romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Originally published in an article in The Guardian.