photo credit @1924us
While the writing world is divided on prefaces, I’m going to start with one. Mostly to say that when it comes to writing, the best thing to do is to write. “How-To” books, in-person seminars, online courses, critique groups, and even brainstorming walks to the ice cream shop all serve as a means for doing anything BUT writing.
I’m not really a fan of that.
However. There comes a book, just once every decade or so, that is worth our pausing. It carries with it secrets that its author is generous enough to tell—truths that will change us. That’s the stuff worth consuming for breakfast each day. These, friend, are my top five.
1. The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield
[If you want brain-shaking wisdom that will forever rock the way you work, this one’s for you. Be warned, you’ll be able to cut yourself a lot less slack once you’ve cracked it open.]
Gosh—what to say about such a book? I’ll start with this: it took me too long to write this paragraph, only because it’s impossible to put into words what this book has done for me. I don’t know if there is a more influential book I’ve read, work-related and beyond. It’s the one I’ve recommended the most; the one people come back to me to talk about; the one even non-writers can’t unglue from their fingertips.
Apart from Pressfield’s lethal grasp on language and ability to snap it at you like a whip, it’s filled with gold. We’re not talking high-level, feel-good fluff gold. We’re talking in the dirt, applicable-right-now-if-you-want-it kind of gold. It’s a rare thing, which is a real shame considering how many educational resources are floating around out there.
My best advice? Set this book down. Often. Even though you won’t want to. And go put what you’ve learned to work. Pressfield writes in delish bite-sized chunks, and it can be tempting to scarf the whole thing down in a sitting. Do yourself a favor—don’t.
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Or, my personal favorite of all time:
“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.
Do it or don’t do it.
It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself,. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
2. The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Ideas at the Right Time, by Allen Gannett
[If you want a formula for making your creative ideas a calculated success in the marketplace, this one’s for you.]
The Creative Curve was one of those impulsive, magically romantic, wandering around Barnes & Noble grabs. Admission: I totally bought the book for the cover (and the snappy description inside). It paid off big time. The Creative Curve is a look at what makes some creative ideas soar, yet others, while just as good, sink. If you’ve ever struggled with feeling like your good ideas are getting lost at sea, this one’s for you. While keeping a healthy respect for the creative process, it takes a technical look at what makes a trend, how to capitalize on them, and what striking gold looks like.
PSA: If you don’t think trends are relevant to writing, you may have been struck on the head with an anvil at one point and forgot about it (probably from the damage that comes with being struck on the head with an anvil). While no one is saying you have to write what’s trendy, a quick jaunt around your own Barnes & Noble will quickly reveal that lots of writers do.
“The traditional view of creativity implies that we all exist in a world of infinite possibilities and must wait for a novel idea to cut through the noise. We’re told that serendipitous moments can occur unpredictably, anytime, while we’re in the shower, on our commute, or in the boardroom.
In this book, I will disprove this, and I will break down the science behind the creative curve, providing you with a methodology that will enable you to maximize your odds of creating a hit—no matter the industry.”
“What nobody has described is how to find the sweet spot on the creative bell curve, the point of optimal tension between preference and familiarity, safety and surprise, similarity and difference.
What is called creative genius is really the ability to read and understand the mechanics of the creative curve and use it to engineer mainstream success.”
3. On Writing, by Stephen King,
[If you want to laugh out loud, to be moved often, to be a part of language that makes yours better just by being there—as well as some dang good practical wisdom—this one’s for you.]
Ah, “On Writing.” Coming to this one is like coming back to an old friend—no doubt the result of King’s unmatched ability to make it so. If you’re looking for a book that is bullet of instruction, this isn’t it. Instead, King takes us on an enchanting tour of his life, starting all the way back to his time as a little boy, locked in the closet, puking up scrambled eggs. (It really is a delight). As King shows us around his life, he sums up each bit with a lesson learned about writing as a whole. And if the magic of his biography isn’t enough to keep you turning the pages (it will be), the nuggets that summarize them will. This was the book that reminded me what it meant to be a writer, of the responsibility I carry to always be looking for stories, no matter where I am. And it starts with paying attention.
The latter half of the book is more technical, diving into what King calls your Writer’s Toolbox. Here you will get the instructional wisdom you crave, still whipped with wit and a dang good time.
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down 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.”
“Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do― to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.”
“It’s worked! Our marriage has outlasted all of the world leaders, except for Castro. And if we keep talking, arguing, making love and dancing to the Ramones- it’ll probably keep working.”
4. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk
[If you want a trusted guide to basic grammar principles that make your work professional, this one’s for you.]
Hear this: if nearly every book on writing tells you to go read “The Elements of Style”, you probably should. I’ll tell you now—with the exception of E.B. White’s introduction—this one isn’t the kind you pick up and read cover to cover. It’s a basic covering of all those nit-picky little rules your sixth grade English teacher was rattling on about while you were busy passing love notes to Andrew Horcasitas. Nit-picky though they may be, they were important then and are important now.
Invaluable snippets about when to use dashes, semicolons, or parenthesis await you. How the heck to write possessive form when someone’s name ends in “S,” or, by golly, double “SS.” It’s not flashy, but it’s the kind of stuff that takes your writing from amateur to professional. It means a potential editor doesn’t need to comb your story, correcting enough mistakes to make them quit at the halfway mark.
I’d strongly recommend getting the illustrated version. It’s fabulously retro and lovely. Not to mention the forward by both Strunk and White are a delight.
“It is encouraging to see how perfectly a book, even a dusty rule book, perpetuates and extends the spirit of a man.”
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
“The writer who has a definite meaning to express will not take refuge in such vagueness.”
5. The Wisdom of The Enneagram, by Don Richard Russo and Russ Hudson
[This one’s for you if you want to take a deeper look not just at yourself, but your character’s inner workings, too.]
Perhaps a bit unorthodox, this last pick is a serious contender. I consider this one to be the Mike Tyson in the book world—a hard hitting, dead-on fighter from birth, with a happy and unexpected resurgence decades later. Put down on paper in the 60s, the personality test and book made a resurgence in popular culture over the last few years. My family has been discussing it at lengths ever since my Gran was required to take the test at a real estate conference in the 60s.
While I have my doubts about most personality manifestos, this one proves spot on again and again. I highly recommend reading it not just to better understand yourself in regard to your life, your work, potential obstacles to your work, but also for your characters. If ever I’m feeling like a character is flat—a 2D cardboard cutout rather than flesh and blood—I dive into the Enneagram. What type is he? What’s he key motivator? Greatest fear? What do his self-preservation patterns look like? Where’s he move under stress? All these questions help you paint a dynamic character that breathes off the page.
“Being blind to parts of ourselves means that there is often a difference between the person we think we are—or the person we would like to see ourselves as—and who we really are as we walk through the world.”
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In the space there is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. —Victor Frankl”
What about you? I’d love to hear from you! What books changed you or your work? Or, if you’ve flipped through any of these, what they did for you?