"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Everyone has a list of his or her favorite books on writing.

Everyone also knows the better-selling ones, and I can pretty much recommend them without reservation: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. And for the mythological underpinnings of narrative, Joseph Campbell's justly-famous Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I'm also a big fan of William Goldman's book about movie writing, Adventures in the Screen Trade. (I once mentioned it glowingly to a studio executive I knew, who exclaimed, "I hate that book!"--a ringing endorsement if I've ever heard one.)

However, I'd like to suggest some other books, personal favorites, that I think speak more powerfully and tellingly to the inner life of the writer. Though not all these books are about writing specifically, the issues explored are relevant to anyone living the writer's life.

In Praise of What Persists, edited by Stephen Berg. A collection of essays by a variety of writers detailing the personal experiences that influenced their work.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. A great book on the dynamic--and often crazy-making---process of striving for quality, however you define it.

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. Elegant and personal, as well as hard-nosed and pragmatic. Wonderful reading.

Life Work, by Donald Hall. A beautifully-written book by the much-honored poet and man of letters, exploring his obsession with--and consolation from--a life devoted to the craft of writing.

Mastery, by George Leonard. A primer on the value of practice, the consistent doing of a craft. A strong rebuttal to a goal-oriented approach to creativity--and to life.

The Courage to Create, by Rollo May. The title says it all.

On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner. Densely written, frankly pedantic, and inevitably self-righteous--and those are the things I like about it. A stirring, sometimes maddening call-to-arms on behalf of writers taking what they do--and its effects on society--seriously.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sixty thousand perfect words. A masterpiece of lucidity, banked emotional fire, sustained tone, depth and heart. I try to read it once a year, just to clear out the cobwebs.

That's just a sampling of my favorite writing books, of course. An eclectic group, I admit. There are other worthy books I could've included, by writers as diverse as E.B. White and Ray Bradbury, Ben Hecht and Stephen King.

But for now, I'll stick with my list. Good companions on the writer's journey.

Naturally, if you have any favorite writing books to add to my list, I'd be happy to hear about them!


daphne77 said...

Hi Dennis,
Rachelle Benveniste here. Well, those are my favorite books on writing, too. Except I don't read The Great Gatsby every year, so you've inspired me. And isn't that one of the main reasons we are here, to inspire one another.

But you know what also really ignites my creative fire? Good poetry; especially the anthologies by Roger Housden, which includes essays after each poem (classic and contemporary), not academic essays but essays that include how Housden's life is transformed by these poems, so we learn about him, too. His essays are as illuminating as the poems. I use them in my writing classes and they have inspired many students . Good poetry, in general nourishes and awakens my creative soul. It's about words and we poets use them with the care of a diamond cutter.
All best to you with your new mystery! Wow!
Best Always,

Alan said...

Hi Dennis,

Along with your excellent list, there is another writing book which I consider absolutely essential -- "BECOMING A WRITER" by Dorthea Brande.

This is not a book about the craft of writing, which after all, can be learned. It isn't about talent, which as Stephen King says, "is cheaper than table salt." It is about seizing upon the one commodity that you have cornered the market: You. Opening yourself up to your authentic "you". Drawing on the right side of your brain, an idea Brande champions long before the "sides" of brain were understood. All the more amazing because the book is based upon her creative writing classes from the 1920's, and the book was published in 1934. And republished countless times since. (It can be found on Amazon and elsewhere). Her lessons are as powerful then as now.

Quoting the back cover: "She shows how to harness the unconscious, how to fall into the "artistic coma", then how to re-emerge and be your own critic"

The foreward by John Gardner sums it up nicely: "Her whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer's mind and heart."

I promise this is a book you will treasure and reread often. It will compliment your list nicely.

best wishes, Alan Shapiro