Anyone who’s ever attempted to write creatively knows how daunting it seems at first. One way to curb the fear is to read books by writers on writing. These books are windows into the lives of successful authors, and from their words a new writer can garner inspiration, hone his or her craft, and empathize about the difficulty of the writing life. Here are four books by writers on writing that are worth the read.
Stephen King’s book on writing has fast become the most loved, most read memoir out there. This is partly because King is such a great storyteller. Reading On Writing is like talking with your best friend — it’s affable and honest. It’s also chock-full of good writing tips. Perhaps the most insightful is King’s discussion of the Ideal Reader, the one person whom the writer ought to have in mind while writing his story. Have a question about the pace of the story? Just imagine whether the Ideal Reader would be bored or confused and adjust accordingly. Though the memoir is down-to-earth, with King’s usual prolish language, it is also emphatically beautiful. It’s magical when King describes writing a novel as “unearthing a fossil." Anyone who’s tried writing a story knows what he means. King recognizes the importance of good technique (hence the discussion of character development, symbolism, and dialogue), while realizing that "we are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”
John Gardner’s instructive book on writing fiction adapted from courses he taught as a creative writing professor is erudite and engaging. While Gardner admits at the opening of the book that anyone can become a writer, the book is not for the half-baked student. This book is about mastery. For Gardner, good writing is in the details, and The Art of Fiction is an in-depth handbook covering everything from describing a scene effectively to the rhythm of a well-fashioned sentence. At the back of the book, Gardner includes 30 exercises for the writer to practice. Wonderfully, Gardner manages to write a largely academic book without losing the joy of fiction writing. Gardner acknowledges the spirituality of writing when he calls it an act of God. He also admits that while technique is helpful, it’s not the be-all-end-all. The last drill in the book: Write a fabulous story using anything you need. Under Gardner’s tutelage, that fabulous book becomes possible.
Margaret Atwood’s book on writing is based on a series of lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000. The book addresses the dark questions every author asks at some point in his career: Is it okay to write for money? If you don’t, where does the money come from? Should the author sacrifice himself before the altar of art? Does the writer have a responsibility for his words or should he simply give himself over to the inspiration of the subconscious muse? It is a tribute to Atwood’s talent that she discusses such questions at length while remaining light-hearted. One leaves the book not so much feeling like Atwood answered her questions, but that she gets it. She’s analyzed her writing life and decided that it’s okay to live in the uncertainty. Plus, her descriptions of the writing life are so spot-on. She describes the attempt to get published as being on trial for a crime: Who are you, and what makes you think you can write? And when beginning writers ask her if it’s necessary to suffer to make good art she answers simply, “Don’t worry about the suffering. The suffering will occur whether you like it or not.” It’s cathartic to read Atwood and discover someone successful who understands the loneliness and discouragement most writers face at some point in their lives, and it’s encouraging to leave the book with the notion that she’s pulling for you.
Reading Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920s is like drinking fine wine — something Hemingway does often in the book. How much of the account is fact and how much fiction, let the reader decide. Mostly, it is good and simple writing. Hidden among the anecdotes about his meetings with Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are golden nuggets about the writing life, like when Hemingway says: “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.” The book is Hemingway’s romantic vision of the poor but brilliant artist, who somehow manages a poetic life of sex and good food. It is snobbish, to be sure, for Hemingway was as arrogant as they come, but reading it just feels good, especially when Hemingway slips in those delicious French phrases, coloring the page with jeune hommes and du descendres.