New, old, and dead writers offer their advice for stepping up your literary game.
As far as New Year's resolutions go, hardly anything does one's mental, spiritual, and creative health more good than resolving to read more and write better. Today's reading list addresses these parallel aspirations. And since the number of books written about reading and writing likely far exceeds the reading capacity of a single human lifetime, this omnibus couldn't be—shouldn't be—an exhaustive list. It is, instead, a collection of timeless texts bound to radically improve your relationship with the written word, from whichever side of the equation you approach it.
1. The Elements of Style, by Maira Kalman, Strunk and White
If anyone can make grammar fun, it's Maira Kalman -- The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman's signature whimsy with Strunk and White's indispensable style guide to create an instant classic. The original Elements of Style was published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use and reprinted in 1959 to become cultural canon, and Kalman's inimitable version is one of our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.
2. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott might be best known as a nonfiction writer, but Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life affirms her as a formidable modern philosopher as well. The 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer's life as it is a profound wisdom-trove on the life of the heart and mind, with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and rationality.
On the itch of writing, Lamott banters:
"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out."
And on the grit that commits mind to paper, she counsels:
"You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started."
On why we read and write:
"Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship."
3. On Writing, by Stephen King
Hailed as one of the most successful writers alive, Stephen King has hundreds of books under his belt, most of which bestsellers. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part master-blueprint, part memoir, part meditation on the writer's life, filtered through the lens of his near-fatal car crash and the newfound understanding of living it precipitated. Though some have voiced skepticism regarding the capacity of a "popular writer" to be taken seriously as an oracle of "good writing," Roger Ebert put it best: "After finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery."
A few favorites from the book follow.
"Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's."
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."
On the lifeblood of writing:
"It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."
On the relationship between reading and writing, which I wholeheartedly second:
"Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
4. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
In Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, Ray Bradbury -- acclaimed author, dystopian novelist, hater of symbolism -- shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to's on everything from finding your voice to negotiating with editors with snippets and glimpses of the author's own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts insight and enthusiasm.
On the key to creativity (cue in Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk):
"That's the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you."
On what to read:
"In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world."
On art and truth:
"We have our Arts so we won't die of Truth."
On signal and noise, with an embedded message that "you are a mashup of what you let into your life":
Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures."
5. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield is a prolific champion of the creative process, with all its trials and tribulations, best-known for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles -- a personal defense system of sorts against our greatest forms of resistance. "Resistance" with a capital R, that is.
"Are you paralyzed with fear? That's a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul."
6. Advice to Writers, by Jon Winokur
Advice to Writers is "a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights," originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum of the aspirational and the utilitarian, covering grammar, genres, material, money, plot, plagiarism, and, of course, encouragement.
Here are a few favorites:
"Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Don't ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out." ~ Charles Bukowski
"Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry." ~ Muriel Rukeyser
"Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created -- nothing." ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
"You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write." ~ Saul Bellow
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." ~ T. S. Eliot
"Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie." ~ Stephen King
"Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by." ~ Ralph Ellison
"Listen, then make up your own mind." ~ Gay Talese
"Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style." ~ Kurt Vonnegut
"Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for." ~ Mark Twain
Originally featured, with more quotes, last December.