The writing life is often an isolated one. Writing groups are few and far between. The internet alleviates this somewhat, but is an imperfect replacement for real fellowship.
All of us live with and through books. That’s part of the reason we got into this writing business in the first place. So why not look for companionship, encouragement, and strategy in the voices of experienced writers on the page?
I often find myself dragging to my writing time, staring grumpily at the work in progress (garbage, of course), and generally having a horrible attitude. I need encouragement to keep going. Reassurance that the daily writing grind is worth more than the sum of its word count.
Don’t get me wrong. Writing is work. But when it starts to feel like work day after day, when makes you miserable, and you start wondering whether not writing would make you less miserable, you need some inspiration. A chiropractic realignment of your writing life. Energy flowing along your meridians. You get the idea.
Here are three books I’ve found encouraging in my own writing life. Some (if not most) of what I blog about here comes from books like these.
1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.
Lamott gives her hilarious, painful, honest take on the writing life. She confronts the anxiety, psychosis, and stress of writing head on. Yes, it’s hard. Really hard. And she admits that, using her own experiences as a backdrop. She argues we need to be kind to ourselves. Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts,” tackle short assignments, and imagine your inner critical voices as mice shut up in jars. It’s invigorating. And funny. Anne Lamott can be scathingly critical, self-deprecating, hilarious, uplifting, and right all in one sentence, and she almost always is.
2. Art & Fear, David Balyes, Ted Orlando
You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.
I’ve referenced this book in another post, but it’s worth the double mention. This little book is geared toward artists of all disciplines, not just writers (though as the authors are writers, writing does come up). Bayles and Orland define art as a verb, not an object. The text reads like a thesis against quitting art, the action. It systematically addresses and debunks the main reasons artists quit, most of them to do with fear. At the same time, the text provides encouragement not to do the most dangerous thing of all: quit doing art.
3. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.
This is an undisputed classic, the king of books on the writing life. If you’re only going to read one book from this list, read with this one. Dillard writes with poise and grace, perfectly encapsulating situations the solitary writer imagines she alone experiences. Writing is taming a lion, the inchworm’s struggle to find the next blade of grass, hammering through a rock canyon. Dillard balances the necessity of writing, the nobility of it, and the struggle in this slim book. I read this one every year, or sooner, if I need to.
There are many other books that could fit in this list, some of which I haven’t read yet (Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, for example) but these are the ones I have on my shelf that I have and will read over and over.
I hope you pick up one of these books, engage with the writer who wrote it, and find encouragement to keep doing what you love. Even if it doesn’t feel like love sometimes.