Reading Lists

Books on Writing Process/Being a Writer

Matt Bell: Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Days, 2022

Susan Bell, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, 2007

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer, 1934

This book started out with a great premise: that difficulty in writing arises not from lack of knowledge of technique, but from deeper emotional or personality issues. Basically, the subconscious has blocks which impede the writer; she is held up by self-consciousness, “misapprehensions about writing,” or she may be “waiting for the divine fire of which [s]he has heard to glow unmistakably.” Or she may be “too shy to write as fully and emotionally as [s]he needs to write if [her] story is to come to life.”

Brande’s response is to split our idea of a writer in two: there’s the conscious artisan, who is “discriminating, temperate, and just”; and the emotional, unconscious side. Put another way, the waking writer and the sleeping writer. Neglect the second part of the self, Brande says, and you cannot be successful, period.

I love this idea, and I was excited to see it explored. However, unfortunately for her, Brande was writing in the 1930s, and psychology wasn’t exactly advanced. The fascination of her premise is let down by the bluntness of her tools, which are a general notion of the unconscious as explained by Freud, and a vague and tenuous description of how it influences the conscious mind. (Brande brings in an experiment concerning holding a key on a string above a piece of paper and letting the unconscious move the hand this way and that, which is somewhat interesting but not exactly helpful.)

The solutions she proposes are incredibly vague, with sentences like: “you must teach the unconscious to flow into the channel of writing.” Well, okay then! To be fair, she had so little at her disposal that she really ended up being ahead of her time in a lamentable way. She does have a couple of concrete exercises, like writing for a certain stretch after just waking up (to better capture the processes of the unconscious), but these are quite few, and not so much given to the writer as assigned to them with great rigidity. Despite her own main premise, Brande’s advice for the writer tends to be more in line with the industrialized, productivity-obsessed culture she came from; God knows that's understandable. But the harshness and rigidity of her advice often left me cold. At some points she even seems to be scolding the unconscious for being “lazy.”

The final blow came when I Googled Dorothea Brande and found out she was married to a well-known fascist, and espoused fascist beliefs herself. Welp, so much for that. The book definitely has some interesting ideas in it, and I don’t regret reading it (it’s pretty short), but I wouldn’t say it shaped my writing habits in any appreciable way.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 1989

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, 1986

Goldberg’s voice is free, warm, and generous in this book, which is divided into bite-size pieces resembling poems more than chapters in their form and loose organization. As Goldberg says, the book is “about using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane” (3). Goldberg comes from the Zen school of Buddhism and the Naropa Institute, and her approach can feel wonderfully liberating if you’ve grown tired of the rigidity of academia.

Goldberg speaks with awareness of the toxic modern cult of “productivity” and offers a more life-embracing alternative. The book includes strong, if somewhat brief, guides for freewriting and writing as a practice. Her approach to these topics is often metaphorical, as Goldberg is primarily a poet; she refers to process as “composting” and struggling with creative discipline as “fighting with tofu.” In other places, the writing suggestions and exercises became, for me, frustratingly focused on the concrete; if your interest in writing concerns more than describing objects or textures or other sensory details, you might feel it begin to fall short. But Goldberg infuses her advice with wit and caring, on a spiritual level, without being too serious or preachy.

Henriette Anne Klauser, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, 1987

Alice LaPlante, The Making of a Story, 2007

Steven D. Price, The Little Book of Writers' Wisdom, 2013

George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, 2021

You can read my review/commentary of this book at my blog, here.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, 2008

Books on Pedagogy

Peter Elbow, Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing, 2000

Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, 1973

Mina P. Shaughnessy, Errors & Expectations, 1977

Books on Theory (Literary or Otherwise)

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, 1977

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 1996

Robert McKee, Story, 1997

Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, 1925

James Woods, How Fiction Works, 2018