When I was in New York a few years ago on a business trip, I decided to stay an extra day so I could explore the city before flying home. I ended up taking a very long walk down Fifth Avenue from 49th Street to Washington Square Park, near NYU. I needed the air, and the two mile stroll on a crisp October day encouraged a lot of the deep belly breathing I had been missing in my life over the past couple of months.
Along the way I stopped at the New York Public Library. Have you been? It's such a charming place, and before I wrapped my scarf around my neck again and ventured back into the streets, I bought a copy of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life from the little bookstore. A coffee shop was in my future, and I thought this slim meditation on writing would be a perfect accompaniment to my cup of tea.
I read most of it in one sitting and underlined a lot of paragraphs, including this passage in particular, providing a gentle reminder to take my time, both in life and on the page. @@Sometimes it's an easy fact to forget that writing isn't a race.@@
With that, I closed the book, and tucked it safely into my purse after finishing my last sip of chamomile tea. The book was unpacked again in Los Angeles, and found its place on the shelf next to some of the titles below.
Like most writers I know, I have a lot of books about writing. I love to scan them from time to time, unearthing little reminders and words of hope whenever I'm feeling stuck or uninspired. To make this curated list, I posed the question of favorite writing books to the wonderful folks in the Wild Words Collective, and there are so many titles here worth a read, or a revisiting, as the case may be.
*This post includes Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for supporting this space!
The best books about writing
(and why you should read them)
1. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
“He helps writers (and all artists) identify the different forms of resistance, shows us that resistance is something you need to beat on a daily basis, and that our work is only done when we’re able to overcome it.”
4. Early Morning: Remembering My Father by William Stafford by Kim Stafford
“This book lovingly looks at what it means to create a life of writing. Not a career, though William Stafford had a prolific publishing career. Kim Stafford manages to bring his father alive on the page, and the wisdom that his father passed on to so many writing students about building a life that spills over with writing is there.”
6. Story by Robert McKee
“It’s billed as being for screenwriters, but it’s totally applicable to novels and stories.”
“He wrote it for screenwriting but it really does apply to all forms of storytelling and was a source of inspiration while in creative writing classes in university.”
7. L’Urgence et la Patience by Jean Philippe Toussaine
“He says the writing process is an endless tug between urgency and patience, spontaneity and calculation. It’s an amazing read.”
8. Writing for your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds by Deena Metzger
“What I loved about this book is that it illuminates your “self” (both shadow and light) and simultaneously erases your “self” during the writing process since writing becomes a realm that is mightier and larger than our “selves,” an act of coming home or simply being. The sweet personal note I found inside the secondhand book was a bonus!
9. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
“I love how King says that writing is basically telepathy, that you're implanting pictures and ideas into someone else's mind. He also shares his own journey as a writer from heaps of rejection letters to the accident that almost took his life. While in so many ways, this book teaches you how to sit down and make writing a priority, for me, his piece about his injury and how it impacted him was deeply relatable, having been in a similar accident. I also love this quote, paired with his own reading list (which includes the Harry Potter series): ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all else: read and lot and write a lot.’”
10. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland
“A fabulous book written by artists for artists of all kinds, but especially is written for ordinary people, not geniuses.”
—Cynthia Grady (website)
11. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer
“It's not specifically about writing, and I've only just dived in, but I find it so relevant and so rewarding.”
12. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
“Have you read any of Annie Dillard’s work? Perhaps Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? Don’t you want to know something about her process? This book isn’t a how to book, it’s a why to book. And like all of Annie Dillard’s work, it is beautiful."
14. Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
“This is by far the funniest book I know about the desperation that is writing and about the courage of the writing kind. I read it while running (!) to catch my train because I literally couldn't stop reading. Several times I laughed so hard, that a woman who was sitting on the other side of the coach came up to me to ask me for the title of the book. After reading Ann Lamott's glorious recollection of her own struggles and victories one is encouraged to sit down immediately and write. Little by little, bird by bird.”
—Sabine Magnet (website)
16. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
"Big Magic takes a lighthearted approach to creativity, providing plenty of personal examples for how to overcome a writer's biggest challenges like fear and trust, while encouraging you to see creativity as a resource available to you at all times."
—Nicole Gulotta (twitter)