I used to read more about writing than I actually wrote.
I’d peruse the writing reference section of every bookstore I entered, hoping to find the one book that held the key—the key that would allow me to sit at my desk every day as words effortlessly flowed from my mind onto the page, faster than I could transcribe them.
Then, the more I started actually writing, the more I realized the only real key is the act of showing up.
Showing up to the blank page.
Showing up to the computer screen.
Showing up, sitting down and actually writing.
Those of us who write know that it’s easier said than done.
So, while I write more than I read about writing these days, there are still a few books I turn to that help me show up. Books than never fail to get me to put pen to paper.
1. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg
I have a soft place in my writer’s heart for Natalie Goldberg. I studied with her for a week in Taos and hers is the first writing book I ever bought. When I first saw the cover of “Writing Down the Bones” with that title and the ink spilling across the page I got chills. Then when I read it and actually picked up a pen to do the exercises I thought, “Wow, I could actually be a writer.”
The short chapters invite me to dip in as needed and pick up a pen for writing practice—a concept I’d never considered before. We practice sports, instruments and anything else we want to be good at but we don’t usually think of needing to practice writing.
Picking up any of Goldberg’s books takes me back to that beginner’s mind. That space where I know nothing and that’s okay. Where it’s okay to play with words, to explore the wilderness of my mind. Space to bring the same sacred intention to my writing practice as I bring to my yoga or meditation practice.
2. “Page After Page” by Heather Sellers
I love all of her books. Her love of the writing process is contagious even while she is realistic about its challenges. Each chapter ends with a writing exercise designed to get pen to paper.
Sellers is like my own personal cheerleader, encouraging me to work hard while finding the pleasure in writing. She reassures me that the world needs the stories I have to tell.
She writes, “I believe you can (and fairly quickly) create a writing life where the writing process itself is so enchanting and delicious, you want to write.”
Sign me up!
3. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson
Ron Carlson is not only an amazing writer but he is a generous and amazing teacher. I’ve had the pleasure of studying with him twice and I never fail to produce pages and pages of writing.
His work ethic is beyond admirable. But he’s not one of those writers who claims to just sit down and the words spill out of him. No, he admits to resistance and struggling to, what he calls, “survive the draft.”
This slender book is a recreation of surviving the draft of one particular short story from the first glimmer of the idea to the final sentence and all that stands in between the two.
He walks us through his process, a process that is muddled with his day-to-day life tasks and how he maneuvers around those tasks to get the work done. Writing is work.
He also describes the choices he makes throughout the writing of the story from why this character drives a particular car to what will that character say next.
Peppered throughout the text are writing exercises that illuminate particular aspects of the craft of writing fiction.
The most valuable lesson I’ve taken away is this: to stay in the room. To stay in the room of my story with my characters and to stay in the physical room of my office, at my desk. To stay on the page.
Carlson admits, “All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”
4. “Still Writing- The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro
This is the most recently published book on my list. I’d heard about it for awhile, had the publication date marked on my calendar and bought it the day it came out. It will definitely be one that I turn to again and again.
It is part memoir and part wise writing advice from someone who is committed to the art, practice and craft of writing. The fact that she is a writer who also practices yoga is an added perk for me.
The whole book feels like a friend has taken me by the hand as we walk in the dark but she has a candle that is lighting the way.
Shapiro is committed to the process of writing. She compares the practice of a writer to that of a ballet dancer: “She is practicing, because she knows that there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art.”
5. “The War of Art- Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield
I swear that Pressfield wrote this book specifically for me.
It always provides the kick in the ass needed to get me pick up a pen or open a new blank document on my computer.
The book is an exploration of Resistance.
“Many of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
He doesn’t sugarcoat it. It’s not a touchy-feely kind of book where we try to figure out why we are resisting our work. Resistance is a fact of life. Resistance is the enemy.
And Pressfield shows us how to defeat that enemy over and over again.
Many more books line my shelves—books on the craft of writing, creativity and memoirs of writers. But these five are the books I turn to again and again to pick me up, to shine a light, to show me the way.
What books do that for you? Feel free to share in the comments.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Cat Beekmans
Photo: Courtesy of Author.