I don’t think you can learn writing from a book. If it can be taught, it is more through osmosis, through absorbing everything around you, including books, personal experience, and insight from other writers. I hesitate to add writing classes, because I am not so sure writing classes help at all. Perhaps they do some good if they are taught by a genuine writer and not a frustrated academic.
My own journey as a writer was ignited by a flash of revelation. I read the short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison while attending a science fiction literature class, and realized that I wanted to create stories that stirred people as much as that story stirred me. That was over four decades ago, and I am as convinced of my destiny as a writer now as I was back then – even more so, in fact, with the weight of experience and, I hope, some hard-earned wisdom to back me up.
I read books on writing more for inspirational value than learning the nuts and bolts of the business. Writing can be a discouraging, frustrating, lonely occupation, and reading of the struggles, tragedies, and triumphs of others encourages me to keep going. One thing to keep in mind, though, if you are reading this as one fascinated by the wonderful, incomparable journey of a writer’s life, and perhaps having already tremulously set out on it yourself: no matter how famous these other writers are, no matter how so-called successful, no matter how much their words thrill you through and through, the advice they give on the craft of writing and how to go about living the life of a writer may or may not be for you. Every writer is different. Read what they have to say, be inspired by the inspiring parts, but only appropriate suggestions and ideas relevant to your situation and your vision as a writer. Discard the rest without qualm. You don’t want to be those other writers – you want to be yourself. It is only your uniqueness that makes you amount to anything in the world of literature. If you don’t agree with any rules another writer has set down, then break those rules with gusto and enthusiasm. You have carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want, and the more you exploit that freedom, the more you will grow as a writer.
I could go on and on, but without further preamble, here are some books on writing I have enjoyed, in no particular order.
1. “Henry Miller on Writing”. This is not an original work but a compilation of thoughts on writing from Miller’s books and essays. Put all together in one volume, though, they are a compressed, powerful collage of ideas and impressions on a writer’s life, art, and odyssey. It starts with sections on Miller’s genesis as a writer and finding his own voice from “Tropic of Cancer”, “Tropic of Capricorn”, “Sexus”, and “Plexus”, and then moves on to his theories on writing and the personal liberation of the act of writing. The last section is a series of essays and letters on obscenity and censorship of literature, as Miller’s books were banned in the United States for many years due to their sporadic blatant sexuality. My favorite passage in the book is Henry Miller’s essay called “Reflections on Writing” from his book “Wisdom of the Heart”, whose first paragraph contains one of my favorite sentences on writing: “Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.” So it has ever been for me. It has not always been easy, and I do not yet see my way clear to the end, but I set forth on the journey many years ago with a clear sky and a fair wind and, despite any foul weather I may encounter, it is far, far too late to turn back now.
2. “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King. I respect Stephen King as a writer, but for the most part I have been content to watch the film versions of whatever works of his interested me. Horror is not so much my cup of tea, and I don’t read much in the genre. But this book interested me. It got a lot of rave reviews and became a bestseller, as all of Stephen King’s books seem to inevitably do. It turns out that only about half the book is about the craft of writing, and the rest is personal memoir. At the beginning of the book he tells about his early years as a writer, his struggles with alcoholism and heavy drug use, his family’s intervention, and his struggle back to sobriety. At the end of the book he tells about the accident in which he was almost killed by a drunk driver while he was walking on the side of a road in Maine, his hospitalization, and the part his writing played in his recovery. For me these are the best parts of the book. I don’t like all of his technical advice. He fervently preaches against the use of adverbs, for example, whereas I feel that though they should be used sparingly, a writer should never arbitrarily cast anything out of his toolbox. But his core advice is simple and sound: read a lot, and write a lot. A writer can’t give better advice than that.
3. “Creating Short Fiction” by Damon Knight. This book is more technical than the others here listed; it goes into the nuts and bolts of short story writing. There are sections on ideas, structure, plot, characterization, viewpoint, style, and so on. At the end Knight also discusses how to approach editors, and what a writer’s life is like. This book is over two decades old, and some of the advice about the world of publishing is dated, as it was written long before the Internet had become a dynamic force in publishing, but its explanations of the technical aspects of short story writing are timeless. If you are just starting out in the writing game and want some guidelines about what goes into the making of a short story, there is no book available that explains it better. Even if you plan to break all the rules later, which is of course your right, you should first know what they are.
4. “A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration” by Michael Shapiro. I first came across mention of this book when I was reading the curriculum of a writing class at some university. It is a collection of lengthy interviews with famous travel writers. Some are more interesting than others, but on the whole the book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of writing. What makes a great travel writer is personal experience. They conduct research, yes, but to really write credibly about a place they have to set forth on a journey; they have to go there and dive into the milieu, absorb the culture, compromise their comfort and safety in search of their material. When I set out on my journey that resulted in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search” I did something similar, so I can empathize with these writers as they speak of plunging into danger and excitement. I also got some great ideas for travel books to read as I went through this volume, such as Bill Bryson’s comedic account of his trek over the Appalachian Trail, “A Walk in the Woods”, Paul Theroux’s thrilling memoir of his dangerous journey north to south through Africa, “Dark Star Safari”, and Peter Matthiessen’s elegant journal of his adventure in the Himalayas, “The Snow Leopard”.
5. “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard. This is a very short book, and not all the essays in it are directly about writing. When I first received it after ordering it, it angered me that the publisher had charged so much money for it when it was so short, the margins were wide, and there were many blank pages. I felt these few essays should have been included in one of her other collections so the reader would have more value for the price. The reason the publisher could get away with it, of course, was because it is by Annie Dillard, and once you have begun to read her work you are hopelessly hooked. The first book I read by her was her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”. I wouldn’t say, as others have, that it is a modern-day “Walden”, but it does use incursions into nature to approach metaphysical themes. I read several of her books after that, some of which I liked more than others. Knowing what a great writer she was, I couldn’t resist a book of hers about writing, and the pieces that do discuss writing, though few and brief, are worth the price of the book. She writes about where and how she composed “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, what she was going through at the time, and what writing means to her.