Ashly Bender, Assistant Director (with some crowd-sourced inclusions)
Lists of must-read books are pretty common around this time of year. Summer after all is when we—theoretically at least—get a break from school and sometimes work so that we can indulge in the more relaxing pleasures of life. Oprah has a list, the New York Time’s has a list, People’s Magazine… you get the idea. As you start collecting tomes to craft your own list, here are a few the Writing Center (and some of our closest friends) would recommend.
First, a caveat. Many other lists you may peruse will likely focus on tantalizing or even soul-searching fictions, maybe the most recent non-fiction adventure thriller, or a witty collection of essays. This list on the other hand collects five books that explore the craft and the role of writing. These books are recommendations for those who want to push their writing to the next level by engaging in some thoughtful and reflective conversation with established authors who are excited about sharing and learning techniques to improve their art. Many of these books are written by creative writers, but at least one of the following books is not. That’s important, because, as we well know, the art of writing encompasses much more than just novels, poems, and the like. So, without further ado and in no particular order…
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be “reassuring.” Much of Bird by Bird explores the painful and drawn-out process of writing. It doesn’t shy away from the hard parts and addresses them with a refreshing frankness, as demonstrated in the chapter on “shitty first drafts.” Despite embracing what seems to be the negative aspect of the craft, Lamott similarly emphasizes the great reward that comes from sharing your written work, even in its early stages. All the great advice in the book is made even more engaging by the illustrative examples Lamott includes from her own professional and personal life.
2. On Writing by Stephen King
Authored by one of the most prolific writers of our time, this short book offers not only writing advice but also insight into a mind who has left an indelible mark on our culture—if not our own minds. King’s classic thriller stories have kept many of us up at night, perhaps repeating “I don’t believe, I don’t believe” if you experienced IT too young, as I did. This book is the next best thing to learning at the feet of the masters—or your writing instructors. Plus, it could be both fun and enlightening to read in conjunction with some of King’s novels and short stories.
3. Literacy in American Lives by Deborah Brandt
This book focuses more on role of writing and reading practices in United States rather than necessarily delivering writing advice. Still, I consistently advise writers that the best way to improve your writing is to know your own habits and style so that you can make effective changes. This includes your experiences with reading and writing throughout your life, and possibly the experiences of your family members. Brandt’s book, informed by hundreds of interviews done in Wisconsin and the American Midwest, traces the histories of individuals and families to offer insights about our expectations and beliefs about writing and reading.
4. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Regular readers of the Writing Center’s Facebook page will likely not be surprised by Bradbury’s inclusion on this list. I’m especially fond of him. This fondness stems not only from my reading of his work, but from listening to his impassioned speeches about the art of writing. In a recent commencement speech he delivered, Bradbury argued that he was so good at writing because he loved all the things he wrote about and because he loved so many things. He called himself the World’s Greatest Lover but also invited his listeners to challenge him for the title. I have not read this collection of essays yet (it’s on my own summer reading list), I expect to find these essays as filled conviction and inspiration as his speech and the beauty of experiencing his writing first hand.
5. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams (and Gregory Colomb)
In contrast to other books on this list, this book is a more instructional, at least in terms of traditional expectations. It is in fact a short collection of lessons on crafting clear writing. This is a good book for readers who are aiming to learn tactics and apply them to their writing without as much of the inspirational recollection of personal writing experiences that can be found in the previous four. Since this is another book on my “to buy” list, I will share that this book made the list because it was recommended to me by a prolific professor who happens to edit books before they are published. It is one of the books she regularly recommends to the authors she works with on the publishing side of her career. Can’t get much higher recommendation than that, right?
These five books are just a slice of the range of smart and very useful books on this topic. What other books might you recommend? What other books would you like to read on this topic? Let’s get this summer rolling—or reading, as the case may be.