On Writing, Poetry, Read This Book

On Writing: Ten Books that Fuel Writing

Some of the books that have helped me with my writing.

After two weeks of not writing, I was stuck.  Frozen. My draft of a middle grade novel felt as remote as actual middle school. For a week, my hands were too busy gripping a steering wheel or a map for 3,000 miles as I drove with my daughter back from college. But then a second week of not writing followed for less concrete reasons and the creative juices of flow cooled to slow-moving mud.

My cousin Kathy rescued me with a writing prompt that was meant as a conversation starter. Around the 2000th mile of my trip, she met us for lunch and generously gave us a goody bag of Lara Bars for the trip. A small notecard poked out of the bag. “That’s just for a fun. It’s a college essay question. See if you can answer it,” she said. The card said, simply, “Describe your top ten.” Already missing my daily writing routine, I knew writing and books would have something to do with the answer.

A thousand miles later, my daughter and I arrived home. The end of summer presented its own To Do list: host the Labor Day BBQ, help a grape harvest intern get settled, have dinner with a teacher friend before school started, see my nephew and his girlfriend before they moved back to Wisconsin, and help my daughter pack for a long trip. The excuses for not writing grew and grew.

At some point my laptop probably sent up a flare but I wasn’t quite ready to be found yet. Finally, when the the immediacy of my middle grade characters were fading from memory and I’d skipped two weekly blog posts, I stopped dithering, gathered up some of my favorite books on writing and opened them, one by one. Help me, I implored them. I need to get going again. And they answered.

Here’s a sample of what ten of my top books on writing, creativity and self-improvement had to say:

1. Poet Denise Levertov reminded me that I was in process. In her book the poet in the world, she nailed it: “….Then there’s that period of irritable brewing, sometimes – knowing there’s something pending, getting clues, flashes, losing it again….” She was right. I was still woolgathering. 

2. In the 1990 classic Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Nathalie Goldberg quoted writing teacher Kate Green: “If you want to write, you have to be willing to be disturbed.” She didn’t mean by people – she meant by your demons, your memories, your preoccupations, but I got the picture. “Be willing to split open,” she said. 

3. Then I turned to R. J. Palacio‘s wonderful book of quotations, 365 Days of Wonder.  The book opened at September 2nd with a quote from Horace, “Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise.” The balance of courage and reflection sounded just right. 

4. In The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passionauthor and artist Elle Luna reminded me why I bothered to care about my writing at all: “It is a constant effort and hard work…to honor who you are, what you believe, and why you are here. To choose Must is the greatest thing you can do with your life because this congruent, rooted way of living shines through everythingthat you do.” 

5. Daniel Goleman, in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence reminded me that its not enough to simply write for 10,000 hours to achieve my goal; I have to improve as I go and focus on the deliberate practice of the craft.  Remembering this time and again makes me turn writing into deliberate practice, with a goal in mind.

6.  …And yet I need to write faster – before the story grows stale. In On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftStephen King says, “…the first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and – for me, at least – the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave….” I already felt a chilly distance from my work in progress. It reminded me of my critique partner Hillary Homzie’s advice: write as fast as you can, and don’t stop! 

7. Opening up Author in Progress, Barbara O’Neal‘s chapter “Write Like You Mean It” agreed with the idea of drafting quickly: “…Do not use the Internet. Do not check e-mail. Do not search for a fact that you think you need…Writers have argued with me over this ­– but the bottom line is, if you break, you end the trance.”

8. Anne Lamott came to the rescue with humor and wisdom. In the classic writing book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says: “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.” 

9. Elizabeth Gilbert provided me with a new mantra, in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: “So try saying this: ‘I enjoy my creativity.’ And when you say it, be sure to actually mean it.” 

At this point last night, it was midnight and there were ten open books splayed across two desks. It was time to get back to work on drafting my novel whether I felt ready or not. (I enjoy my creativity! I enjoy my creativity!) I opened one last book.

10. …and read Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” I found it reprinted in The Making of a Storyby Alice LaPlante. Joan says, “…I think we are all well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

Her words reminded me that if the Reluctant Me didn’t get moving, the Writerly Me would rise up and clobber us both at some time. What a shame that would be when I learn from them both.

  • Bibliography:
  • Levertov, Denise. the poet in the world. New York: New Directions, 1973. 
  • Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.New York: Bantam New Age, 1990.
  • Palacio, R.J. 365 Days of Wonder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
  • Luna, Elle. The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion.New York: Workman Publishing, 2015.
  • Goleman, Daniel. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: Harper, 2013.
  • King, Stephen.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.
  • O’Neal, Barbara“Write Like You Mean It.” In Author in Progress, edited by Therese Walsh and the authors of Writer Unboxed.  
  • Lamott, Anne.Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1994.
  • Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.
  • Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.” In Slouching Toward Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961. I read the essay in Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Read This Book

Books I Recommend: Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

The cover of Underland is from the painting “Nether.” While it appears to be roots dangling over a cave entrance, it was meant by the painter to be the last thing you’d see after a nuclear explosion. (Stanley Donwood)

Okay, I cheated. 

As soon as I bought this 488-page book, I flipped to Chapter Five: Invisible Cities. The “cities” referred to Paris and its underground counterpart, 200 miles of quarry voids and catacombs, where cataphiles– lovers of the catacombs – secretly and illegally wander, travel and party.

I needed Robert MacFarlane’s first-hand account of his foray for a story I am drafting. Then, at the end of Chapter Five, I turned back to page one and devoured the rest of this gorgeous book. 

In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, MacFarlane provides a perspective on the world beneath our feet by traveling to eleven places on the planet where the Earth yields, shelters or hides something. In nearly all instances, he is accompanied by a friend, an expert or a guide, his own mythological Charon ferrying him to the underworld. 

The narrative is rich with references from mythology, history, literature, geology, and the world of nature. (Macfarlane also cowrote an award-winning children’s book called Lost Words, with descriptions of terms used in nature.) Throughout Underland, he explores the significance of each location while simultaneously describing his real life adventure in it . Often, his exploits contain moments of gripping fear, amazement, sadness, or ecstatic discovery. At one point under Paris, he turns his skull sideways to squeeze through an impossibly narrow passage when a Metro train roars overhead. On a remote northern archipelago in Norway, he backpacks through hail, sleet, rain, hail again, and up five sharp peaks to a sea cave high on a cliff where dwellers 2000-3000 years ago left their mark on the walls, and mysterious red dancers have been sighted.

Reading Underland was a feast on so many levels: for its exacting botanical and geological description framed in a generous, tender and literary point of view; for its eyewitness account of places with historical and planetary significance; for its radical inquiry into “deep time,” a time before history and a time when we, my friends, will be long, long gone. I will likely never experience the chilling reality of the last place he visited but I’m glad I had a Charon like Macfarlane to ferry me there – and back again.

Extra bits:

  • If I were going to read this book with a glass of wine by my side, I’d suggest this one: ShoneTal Cellars Meredith Mitchell Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir. I know this is a really weird suggestion, but here me out: like the “deep time” theme of this book, this is one of few wines that are “own-rooted” meaning they aren’t grafted onto rootstock, like most grapevines in the US and Europe. Plus, the vineyard is located on ancient volcano soil in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That’s what I call “deep time” wine.