Writers can be a peculiar bunch, which makes us hard to buy gifts for. Writing also happens to be one of the cheapest pastimes, and it requires little more than a notebook and a pen.
If you have a writer in your life, you may be struggling over what to buy him or her for Christmas. Personally, I love getting books for gifts, and nearly every writer I know does. Books can become treasured keepsakes — particularly if you take a moment to inscribe them with a personal message. A book about writing shows the recipient that you take his or her dreams seriously, which is the greatest gift you can give.
If you’re not a writer yourself, it can be hard to know which books are best. (Or, if you are a writer, you may have forgotten some of the classics.)
Here are some great books about writing to add to your Amazon cart for the aspiring author in your life:
5. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird may have been the first book that I ever read on writing. I vividly remember lying on a beach during spring break in college, reading Anne Lamott while Bombay Bicycle Club played in my headphones.
Even at 19 years old in a sunny, beach-induced stupor, I remember the book triggering a mini-epiphany — that time was a-wastin’, that death was imminent, and that I had better start writing. (I know — I was a lot of fun back then.)
Bird by Bird is a warm guide to writing (and life) with some clear perspective — advice both immortal and unapologetically human. Lamott interweaves personal anecdotes of humor, loss, life, and death to instruct writers on how to trust themselves, love life, and write their hearts out.
Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.
It’s easier if you believe in God but not impossible if you don’t…Now, it might be that your God is an uptight, judgmental perfectionist…God as a high-school principal in a gray suit who never remembers your name but is always leafing unhappily through your files. If this is your God, maybe you need to blend in the influence of someone who is ever slightly more amused by you, someone less anal. David Byre is good, for instance. Gracie Allen is good. Mr. Rogers will work.
4. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
I’ll admit — it took me a long time to get to this book. I picked it up, leafed through it, and put it back down on a bookstore shelf more times than I can count. On first glance, it seemed self-congratulatory and name-drop-y — a hack guide to magical thinking. I’m a little ashamed by how harshly I judged the book without ever having read it.
When I finally did, I found it to be an irreverent, dust-yourself-off sort of companion to the emotional ups and downs of creative life. With chapters like “We Were Just a Band” and “The Shit Sandwich,” you quickly start to like Elizabeth Gilbert. The chapters are short, often funny, and compulsively readable.
We all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch…an activity that is beyond the mundane and that takes us out of our established and limiting roles.
You can always make your art on the side of your bread-and-butter job. That’s what I did for three whole books…That’s what Toni Morrison did when she used to get up at five o’clock in the morning in order to work on her novels before going off to her real-life career in the publishing world…It’s what J.K. Rowling did back when she was an impoverished single mother, struggling to get by and writing on the side.
Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.
3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones is a classic for a reason. Natalie Goldberg makes writing accessible, real, and wild for everyone from high-school students to college professors. The book is broken down into short, easy-to-digest chapters.
As far as I know, Goldberg was the first to relate writing to Zen meditation. She was also one of the pioneers in the new-school wave of thinking that everyone can write and that everyone should. You can find aspects of Zen Buddhism in her writing instruction and in her workshops today. To Goldberg, writing, like Zen, is about studying the mind. Whether or not you currently have a meditation practice, I find her outlook very effective for unleashing the wild writer within.
I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and have no time to work at my real work.
We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.
Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist — the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children.
2. On Writing by Stephen King
This was another one of the books I read before I took up writing seriously. Probably every novelist — and everyone who seriously wants to be a novelist — has read and reread this book.
Stephen King is the writer who needs no introduction. It’s clear from his body of work and commercial success that he’s cracked the code on what it takes to be a writer for life. He has an entire book full of anecdotes and experiences that can inform the beginning writer well — and perhaps inform her better after she’s been writing for a while.
One of my favorite anecdotes is from when King got his first rejection slip as a youngster. He took that rejection letter and nailed it to the wall. He writes:
By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not), the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.
It’s been years since I read this book, but three things have stuck with me throughout my writing journey:
- You must write your first draft with the door closed and edit it with the door open.
- You must give your work time to marinate between the first and second drafts.
- You must eliminate adverbs with a vengeance.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.
1. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Behold another masterpiece that I once avoided like the plague. I love telling the story of how I came to read The Artist’s Way, but I won’t bore you with all the details. Suffice to say, the book was literally dumped in front of me in a “free books” bin, coffee-stained and dog-eared, at a time when I needed it desperately.
I like to say that Julia Cameron is my creative fairy godmother. She taught me that it is not sustainable to just put your nose to the grindstone and write forever without replenishing your creative well. She taught me that it is not just acceptable to nurture your inner artist with seemingly trivial things that make you happy — it is absolutely necessary.
The book is broken down into chapters that follow a 12-week self-guided course. With homework and exercises at the end of each chapter, The Artist’s Way is part writing course, part self-help book, and part creative permission slip. To get the most out of it though, you must complete the exercises.
When I did, I found the revelations to be astounding. I was giddy. I finally had permission from Julia to do all the things my inner artist was begging for.
This is one book that I have written in, dog-eared, bookmarked, and reread. My copy looks as though it’s been run over by a car. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me. I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard. Writing became more like eavesdropping and less like inventing a nuclear bomb.
In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun. Do not think duty. Do not do what you should do — spiritual sit-ups like reading a dull but recommended critical text. Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery.
Sharing books can be sacred for writers. And sharing books about writing with my fellow writers feels a lot like a right of passage.
A writer will never forget the first time she reads one of these books. Don’t you want to be the person who gifts that book to the writer in your life? You can forever be a part of his or her story.
For my fellow writers out there, what are your favorite books on writing? Have you read all of these? Which stuck out to you the most?
Photo by Patrick Tomasso