We live in the time of Writing Resource Cornucopia. There are myriad aides for writers out there – books, magazines, courses and websites offering writing advice and exercises; sometimes even recipes for creating the next bestseller.
I have my reservations about how useful it is to have such a great choice. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of available information, and to grow confused in the face of often contradictory advice. Worse, the impression such plenty creates is that the secret to becoming a good writer lays in following the rules and regulations offered under titles such as ‘10 golden rules for writers’ (or ‘My top 13 writing resources’…).
While the endless stream of the ‘How to’ advice runs the risk of setting up writers to produce formulaic work, I also have a problem with the similarly ubiquitous writing advice given in the fuzzy spirit of New Age, which abuses Buddhist clichés and really teaches more about meditation than the actual business of writing. Then there are resources for writers out there to help us with practicalities: How to write publishing proposals, How to approach an agent etc. Such advice is often useful, but won’t make us better writers. Yet it is the latter endeavor – growing as a writer – that I am most interested in when I look for resources to assist both my own practice and my teaching of writing.
Over the years I have come across some useful resources and I’d like to share these with you. Those that mean the most to me are usually created by people who share my view of writing as art, and vocation. My favorite resources help me to remain inspired, but not in the fluffy, zany way of ‘connecting to your inner muse’. Rather, they push me out of my comfort zone, provoke me to think in more complex ways about the ethics of writing and of life in general, and sometimes sweep me off my feet by the sheer beauty of their prose. I can also use some how-to advice, but only if it comes from the masters, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Joan Didion. Their advice often relates to another practice –reading; they teach me how to steal better from other writers. The following list reflects these interests (you’ll find here hyperlinks for the resources I recommend).
I find dictionaries invaluable, as I largely write for the sheer love of words. And this dictionary offers even more than their definitions. It also tells fabulous stories – about unusual words, idioms and names from history, fiction, folklore and myths. When feeling stuck in my writing, I sometimes leaf through this book only to discover words like Ephebi, which is of Greek origin and means ‘youths who have reached puberty’, or to learn of Og, the giant who apparently survived the biblical great flood. Often such discoveries rejuvenate my work, sending it in unexpected directions.
My very favourite book on writing. I believe that the best way to learn to write is by reading other writers carefully. But how does our reading like writers differ from reading for pleasure? Prose will tell you in great, and entertaining, detail, quoting from an eclectic list of books.
This collection of essays offers a wonderful discussion of the ethics in creative nonfiction, stressing the need for being honest about, and critical of, our memories. Many contributors delighted me with their intelligence, sophistication and depth of analysis so that I ended up reading their books too.
This is a clear and thoughtful exploration of immersion, this relatively new and much misunderstood sub-genre of creative nonfiction. Hemley is not prescriptive about how to write immersion books, but rather discusses the genre and its ethical complexities through discoursing on books he loves. Like Lazar’s anthology, this work introduced me to exciting writers I hadn’t known previously.
Appelfeld is an internationally renowned Israeli novelist. This slim memoir of his working life is actually incredibly rich both in reflection about human nature and advice on writing. The overarching theme there is how to find one’s writing voice and themes.
In this marvellous collection of essays very fine writers tell about finding (and losing) people (and sometimes other sources of inspiration) who had greatly influenced their writing. The contributors all share an incredible commitment to the writing practice, and their tenacity is inspiring. Many essays also contain excellent advice on the craft of writing (mostly fiction).
This book showcases the greatest of minds in the writing world, such as Norman Mailer and Tony Morrison, and is also a lesson in conducting genuinely deep conversations. As I read this collection, I felt challenged and inspired by Koval’s brilliant questions and by the complex thinking of her interviewees. There are gems for writers in every interview in this book.
The Paris Review, an iconic literary magazine, has contributed greatly to the art of interviewing by publishing in-depth interviews with the greatest authors for more than six decades. The interviewers themselves are often notable writers and the interviews are often conducted over a substantial period, and then edited in collaboration with their subjects. The results are astonishing – many of these interviews have come to be recognized in themselves as classic literary works. There are several published collections of these interviews, but many are also available on the magazine’s website for free.
It contains, among other things, links to electronically accessible readings on the art of creative nonfiction and to short creative nonfiction. It also offers a curious selection of creative nonfiction tweets (yes, there is such a beast!) and opportunities for writers that are often unknown to those of us in Australia.
Maria Popova’s brainchild, this is the most intellectually stimulating website I’ve come across. I suspect there is no need to describe it as you most probably already know it, particularly since Popova’s visit to Australia last year. All I’ll add is that for writing purposes, the series of entries on creativity there is particularly useful.
This is a shared weekly blog of American authors Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner. The advice is diverse, coming also from guest authors, and usually offers fresh alternatives to the well-worn clichés of writing classes, such as ‘show don’t tell’.
Quotes from writers on writing.
In my darker hours (I have many of these!), when my muse gives me the finger and goes off to the pub, I sometimes search the web for quotes from literary masters to cheer me up. I have even compiled a list of my favorites which I keep by my writing desk. Here’s one from Phillip Roth which I find particularly useful when after a long writing session I realise that all I produced is crap (something that happens to me often):
I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.
This makes me think, if writing is that hard for such a prolific genius as Roth, then what do I have to complain about? So yes, quotes can be a great resource.
I much prefer this bookselling website to Amazon, as it’s cheaper, the delivery is (at least in my experience) quicker, and it is more user-friendly. I count it as a writing resource, because, as I have stressed here, I have never found a better writing resource than reading (like a writer).