One of the best ways to put off writing is to read about it.
And at the same time, we all need to be taught. Continually. Or, perhaps more accurately, as Lewis recalled Dr. Johnson saying, we need to be reminded.
In this spirit of procrastination, learning, and remembering, I would like to recommend ten books for writers plus three new ones from my “to read” list.
Most of the books mentioned may be accessed online or found in a used bookstore. If you decide to purchase the Wangerin book, I would highly encourage you to do so through The Rabbit Room, and make sure you check out their site for artists while you’re at it!
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
…all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. -Anne Lamott
Like most–maybe all–writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books. -Francine Prose
I read both of these in college for a class on creative non-fiction, and while they may be read separately, I like to recommend them together.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott endears and comforts readers with her frank, confessional voice, and her illustrations help beginning (and seasoned) writers better appreciate the various aspects (and agonies) of the writing process.
Francine Prose recognizes that you will write like what you read. In Reading Like a Writer, she uses selections from great literature as examples and focuses on what makes stories–from words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to the elements of fiction– in order to guide writers through analyzing stories from the creator’s perspective.
The Creative Call by Janice Elsheimer
This one came recommended by a fellow writer who is also a busy wife and mother. Not only geared for writers, the main focus of this book is, as the title indicates, the concept of calling and obedience. Elsheimer encourages those in the creative arts that their gifts are far more than guilty pleasures, and the workbook style helps those delaying obedience to use the gifts God has given them by setting small goals.
Creative Writing: For People Who Can’t Not Write by Kathryn Lindskoog and Beate Not the Poore Desk by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
If you say to me, “I want to be a writer,” I will ask, “Why?” -Walter Wangerin
These were both given by a husband-wife team who write and direct plays, and in fact the the second came not only as a Christmas gift, but as one given in faith because they hadn’t read it yet!
Creative Writing reads like a manual with chapters on everything from creativity to grammar, so feel free to skip around. (Bonus: Lindskoog even offers sections of writing advice from George Orwell and C.S. Lewis.)
Beate Not the Poore Desk, although also a mix of the theoretical and practical, reads like a letter from your grandfather– wise, simple, and imparting hope. In fact, Wangerin reminds me of a professor of mine who once gave me what was probably the best piece of writing advice I’ve received: “Many people remember the part where Wordsworth says that poetry is the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion,’ but they often forget the next part which says, ‘recollected in tranquility.'”
Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other the sense of manners.
The novelist doesn’t write to express himself, he doesn’t write simply to render a vision he believes true, rather he renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader.
…the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.
I bought this one, read about 85% percent of it, and loaned it for about a year. While I was more than happy to share, I found myself missing my friend Flannery on numerous occasions, and finding the right quote on Good Reads just doesn’t cut it. (Neither should the above quotes suffice.) Writing this post has made me realize that this is probably my favorite of the books listed because it seems the most complete. The essays in Mystery and Manners address writing theory and practice, offer advice for literature teachers, and provide theological insight for writers, their stories, and even readers.
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some great classic voices that every author should read at some point. Although there are many more voices in literary theory, I tried to pick the ones that provided the most practical advice for poets. Horace is probably my favorite.
Poetics by Aristotle
Ars Poetica by Horace
On the Sublime by Longinus
On the Vernacular by Dante
And here’s to those peeked-through volumes on my shelf waiting to join me for a nice cup of Scottish or Yorkshire tea:
Walking on Water by Madeline L’Engle
The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York, Anchor Books, 1994.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York, Harper One, 1980.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them. New York, Harper Perennial, 2007.
Wangerin, Walter, Jr. Beate Not the Poore Desk. Nashville, Rabbit Room Press, 2017.