For several months, I’ve been keeping a list of texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer. Some are as long as a book and are explicitly about writing, in particular about practice, process, and style. A few of my picks are essay length, and a few are about visual art, e.g., photography and ceramics, yet the authors articulate principles that, in my view, apply to writing.
This list of 13 of my fundamental texts will turn into a new series, Writer’s Dozen, starting with my next post. I am inspired in part by an essay I read recently, by Tom Bissell, called “Writing about Writing about Writing,” in which he takes stock of some staples in the how-to-write section of his local bookstore. It’s a balanced analysis; he finds reasons to both mock and praise the books he features. On my list and his only two overlap: ones by Annie Lamott and Natalie Goldberg. Bissell admits to varying personal interest in the other books he critiques, which include Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (his one writer’s-life-changing text), Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life.
I highly recommend Bissell’s essay. He has a tougher sensibility than I, but the heart of his argument is consistent with my motivation for choosing 13 personally influential texts and commenting on them in my upcoming series. About books about writing in general, Bissell asserts:
Most writers have thoughts about writing as an act, as a way of understanding oneself, or as a way of being, and they are often interesting. I have any number of thoughts about writing, all of which I find incomparably fascinating… A how-to-write book saved my life, then, but it did so existentially, not instructively. Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead, they are about how to live.
Indeed, my favorite books about writing or art are, in their way, about how to live.
First up: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a book that initially disturbed me and then later settled down and found its place in my habits.
Image, “Pencil Art,” by Nalini Prasana on Flickr via a creative commons license.