Three Favorite Books on Writing

Journaling @ Ancora CC-BY Sara

The three writing books I return to again and again have become favorites for one reason: they get me writing. The writing books I like best have mystery at their center. You won’t find titles like 21 Steps to Finishing Your Novel in 21 Days or 97 Tried-and-True Techniques for Mastering Writing (titles I just made up) on my list of favorites–though you will find titles like that on my writing shelf, because I’m a sucker for a writing book, even the ones that I know, just know, aren’t going to work for me.

The books that get me writing are the ones that focus on writing as a daily discipline: showing up, sitting down, keeping the hands moving. They don’t promise anything. They aren’t programs. They’re practices, invitations.

bird by bird

Before I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, I always thought I was doing it wrong. I wanted to write, but it was–and is–so damned hard. If I was really “meant” to be a writer, it would come easily, right?

I imagined what writing looked like for other writers, and it went something like this: they had a good idea, sat down at their computer and typed it up, read through their manuscript, laughing aloud at their clever word play and marveling at the amazing sentences that flowed from their fingers, perhaps changed a word here or there, and mailed it out for publication.

Writing wasn’t anything like that for me. It took (and still takes) some extreme will power and persistence to sit down to write, and then each sentence comes out in this stop-and-start dribble and even though each sentence takes excruciatingly long to write, it’s also total crap when I do get it down and then it has to be entirely rewritten.

This couldn’t be what writing is supposed to feel like, look like, be like.

But it turns out that this is often exactly what writing is like. Anne Lamott doesn’t mince words: “writing is not rapturous.” Mind. Blown.

There is actually plenty of practical advice in Bird by Bird, including “the two single most helpful things I can tell you about writing,” which are, in fact, really helpful things to know:

  • Short assignments
  • Shitty first drafts

The chapter on short drafts includes the family story from which the title comes. Her ten-year-old brother had procrastinated until the night before on a school project, a report on birds, that he’d had three months to complete. Their father gave the overwhelmed boy some excellent advice: “Just take it bird by bird.”

The chapter on shitty first drafts is one that I assign frequently in my Composition courses, because it’s also mind-blowing for my students to discover that good writing doesn’t come out right the first time: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”

What I like most about Bird by Bird is Lamott’s voice, her matter-of-fact good sense and humor. Writing may be hard, but it’s not brain surgery. “It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”

writing toward home

Poet Georgia Heard is the original author of two of the most productive writing exercises I give my students in Composition: querencia and heart maps. The concept of querencia–the place you feel most at home–is central to the way Heard thinks metaphorically about home and writing in Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way: “For writers, that burning urge to write is our querencia. In order to feel at home we have to be writing . . . Writing is a way of finding and keeping our home.”

This is a gorgeously written book of short vignettes and open-ended exercises that guides the reader to discover those topics, places, routines, observations, and ways of thinking about writing that are our writing home. Heard has a lot to say about the obstacles to writing–fear, perfectionism, time, criticism, confidence. She uses many different metaphors–stone, layers of rock, tortillas, digging–to break through those obstacles and to generate writing. This is a book I’ve read many times and dipped into many more, and I always find something meaningful to think and write about whenever I read a chapter or two.

writing down the bonesNatalie Goldberg calls her approach “the practice school of writing.” Writing practice is at the heart of what she teaches in Writing Down the Bones and her other books about writing. The rules of writing practice are simple:

  • Set the timer–ten or twenty minutes
  • Keep your hand moving–no rereading, no crossing out, no second thoughts

So simple, and yet so hard to do. It requires real discipline to keep the hand moving no matter what. I will sit down to write for ten minutes and suddenly realize that I’ve been staring off into space for fifteen minutes. The purpose of keeping the hand moving is to cut through to what Goldberg calls “first thoughts”: “the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what you mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

Goldberg doesn’t downplay the obstacles or resistances to writing, but she’s no-nonsense about the solution:

Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with ‘this moment’ and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.

Writing Down the Bones is deeply informed by Goldberg’s experience of Zen meditation:

In Zen meditation you sit on a cushion called a zafu with your legs crossed, back straight, hands at your knees or in front of you in a gesture called a mudra. You face a white wall and watch your breath. No matter what you feel–great tornadoes of anger and resistance, thunderstorms of joy and grief–you continue to sit, back straight, legs crossed, facing the wall. You learn to not be tossed away no matter how great the thought or emotion. That is the discipline: to continue to sit.

The same is true in writing. You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penetrate into the heart of them.

These quotes give you a flavor of the book, which may at times be a bit too abstract for some readers. But there is also much that is very practical, including some excellent tips for fighting your own resistance and a list of very simple but surprisingly productive writing prompts.

Like Writing Toward Home, Writing Down the Bones is written in very short chapters–most of them 1-2 pages long. It’s the perfect book to dip into for inspiration at the beginning of your writing day. I have been reading and rereading this book since shortly after it was first published in 1986, and it’s always like I’m reading it for the first time.

Photo Credit:  “Journaling @ Ancora” CC-BY Sara

8 responses to “Three Favorite Books on Writing”

  1. During my student teaching experiences, I noticed that students in general struggle with writing. My first graders and my 6th graders had challenges in this area. However, through perseverance, persistence, determination, and encouragement, many were able to improve in this area. A few of my 1st graders went from writing next to nothing to writing what they deemed “books.” Every time that they produced ANYTHING (even small sentences), I praised them for their efforts. It didn’t matter the quality of the work. After awhile, they were so excited, that they began writing more and more. I didn’t start giving tips for improvement until I saw that they were able to just keep writing. Some of my 6th graders struggled as well. My cooperating teacher used to be a Language Arts teacher, and she has amazing resources for students and writing. She copied packets of huge lists of interesting words for students to use to add “color” to their writings. Although that wasn’t a complete solution, it definitely assisted them with being more creating. I really want students to know that by working hard that they can all be successful with writing.

    • I think that whole notion of “keeping writing” is key. We often cheat students of the opportunity to develop fluency, consistency, voice in their writing practice by focusing much too soon on product. Have you read Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle? Smartest thinking I know on teaching writing. Katie Wood Ray has several books about writing workshop in elementary that I think are essential, including (at least) two on working with the youngest writers.

      • I have seen children actually “shut down” completely when adults start nit-picking the quality of their work. To me it is more important to “get them writing” rather than focusing on “COPS” in the beginning of a student’s work. (C – capitalization, O – organization, P – punctuation, S – spelling.) Once we hook them, we can always go back to learn about how to “polish” a work.

      • Most of my college freshmen come to me severely traumatized by the writing teaching they’ve experienced in school. They hate writing and don’t think they CAN write. Something really needs to change in our approach. I wonder why we teachers so often lose sight of what actually matters in writing–it’s an act of communication. So the writer needs to have something to say to the reader. I’ve found that when students care about what they’re communicating, a lot of the distracting surface errors disappear (probably because they’re writing in their true voice) and they’re much more invested in working on the errors that remain that may cloud their meaning.

  2. “Laughing aloud at their clever word play” – wait, this doesn’t happen to you? 😉

    Thanks for the post. I definitely needed it. I also agree that writing continuously and not crossing out words is extremely difficult but a great writing method. Sometimes, when I am assigned a boring piece of academic writing, I try this tactic and it takes a lot of discipline to not edit what I’ve just typed. Oddly enough, it’s easier to do in my writer’s notebook. Perhaps that’s because it’s harder to edit and cross out with pen.

    • I would love just once to reread a draft of something and laugh at my own cleverness! I love what you say about notebook work. That’s one of the reasons why I believe so strongly in writing practice in the notebook. I NEVER do writing practice on the computer–because I would just edit as I go!

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