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The 10 Best Books About Writing

July 22, 2010  |  7:00am
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5. On Writing by Stephen King
However you feel about Stephen King, he’s managed to pen a staggering amount of work both popular and unpopular. It was only a matter of time until he tried to impart some sagely advice about how to “kill your darlings” and communicate telepathically; in 2000, he released the part-memoir, part-stylebook On Writing that both recounts his childhood attempts at writing and offers advice about the technical aspects of the trade—developing plot and characters and facing the blank page. It’s an interesting read even if you’re not looking to write your own 1000-page thriller.—Whitney Baker

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4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Author Donald Miller gave me a copy of this book a couple years ago, so I’ll just quote him about why he reads it every six months: “Pressfield leaves out all the mushy romantic talk about the writing life, talk I don’t find helpful. True, professional writers are not walking around looking at flowers waiting for inspiration, they are, rather, fighting the urge to distract themselves and sitting down at the computer to hammer out their days work. Pressfield instills in his readers a professional perspective. Being a writer, to Pressfield, is no more glamorous than being a plumber. A professional shows up every day and ‘fixes a toilet.’ I doubt any book has had a more positive influence on my writing life than this one.”—Josh Jackson

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3. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
My first published travel essay was written while I was reading Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that no doubt colored my own searching prose. When my story showed up in a literary journal right next to an essay by Dillard, I felt the pride of accomplishment until I read her short book about writing. The brutality of The Writing Life is only somewhat soften by the rhythm of each sentence and her parabolic tales from the natural world. But the message is clear: Do not fall in love with your words. Mercilessly attack your most perfect paragraphs if they don’t serve the whole of the idea. “This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.” It’s rewarding work. But it’s work.—Josh Jackson

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2. On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
Gardner asserts that morality is an eternal and unchanging element in the universe, like a law of physics. Like gravity or centrifugal force or AutoTune. Like Tolstoy before him, Gardner’s getting at the notion that fiction should aim at higher targets than entertainment or titillation alone, that entertainment and titillation are simpler tools for going after Truth, whatever it is. Moral fiction can be comic—look at Euripides or Twain or Vonnegut or Shakespeare, for that matter—or high-minded and serious, like Faulkner and Morrison and Borges. But it goes after the Big Kahuna of Being, else it fails.—Charles McNair

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1. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott mixes enthralling bits of advice with glimpses of the ordinariness of the profession that make it one of the most generous and inspiring writing books you’ll find. For anybody looking to improve their craft, the mantra imparted from father to son in the titular slice-of-life about Lamott’s older brother trying desperately to write a report about birds is valuable. Start small, be tenacious, and take it bird by bird.—Whitney Baker

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