Every writer knows the pains of writing. Finding time, focus, the right words, and the right mindset can be excruciatingly difficult. When you finally do accomplish this, there’s nothing worse than realizing that what you’ve written is complete and total garbage. Or maybe it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever composed but you don’t have an audience to share it with, or don’t know the right audience that would like it because it’s straddling the lines of too much.
As an aspiring (read: struggling, lost, and afraid) writer for the last decade, the main thing that kept me going was reading everything that I could. Well, that and the support of my friends, family, and wife, but sitting and writing at five in the morning is still a lonely and uncertain task.
My struggle with writing is something I infrequently talk about because then I have to actually admit it to myself, and when I do that it often feeds into a feeling of helplessness – as though I’m the only one who has to suffer to produce anything good.
Thankfully, I stumbled upon a few amazing books over the last several years that opened up the spirit of writing and shared the heartache and joy it so often induces. These books helped me stay sane and guided me to become a better writer.
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott
Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott is the perfect example of this. Lemott takes the reader on her journey as a writer and candidly drapes you in a cloak of understanding in the fact that writers are completely insane, but it’s a good thing. There are ups and downs, successes and failures, and good and bad people to share both with to maintain balance and continue on your path to producing something good.
I read this book during a second or third draft of my own memoir and felt an overwhelming surge of relief to know that I was not the only one to struggle. She taught me that it’s more than just good to share, it’s important for the process.
- The Elements of Style by Strunk & White and On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Sometime after Bird by Bird, I found myself reading both The Elements of Style and On Writing Well. These are books that everyone who is ever going to write anything should read. I’m grouping them here because they go hand in hand, lesson in lesson.
I wish someone had just given me these two books at some point in high school or even grade school; it would have saved me years and years of grammar classes. These two tightly wound critiques on writing are all about pure writing. They treat the English language with an elegance and respect unlike any I’ve ever seen.
The greatest lesson throughout these two treatises was to be ruthless – a lesson I certainly needed at the time, and later printed out and pinned above my desk as a constant reminder:
Look at the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?
– William Zinsser, On Writing Well
- On Writing by Stephen King
Now in my post-published satisfaction that’s mixed with separation anxiety and an anxiousness that no one will ever read my book, I’m reading Stephen King. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I’ve ever read a Stephen King book in my life. Once I finish On Writing, I’ll be reading more of his work.
Much of my personal curriculum leads into itself. When authors mention authors, I usually research their work. I also look for interviews with authors talking about their writing. It’s always beneficial to hear the thoughts of a master of the craft. They’ve been through it all and have the content from experience to share and teach.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this article and immediately ordered On Writing because I agreed with everything Mr. King said. Stephen King is a wise man with a well-rounded and insightful perspective. Like the books I’ve listed above, his memoir will make you a better writer.
These are some of my favorite books on writing and I’m sure there are many others out there. Please share your favorites in the comments section below. I’m always eager to learn about more great books that I need to read.