5 Must-read Books for Writers

by Starla J. King on April 16, 2014

Actually, it’s 7 books, because who can choose just 5 books, about anything, ever?!?!

I recommend or quote from these books regularly to my writing coaching clients, and their feedback suggests that these books do indeed belong on this must-read list.  Without further ado, here they are, in alphabetical order because they’re equally important, in different ways:
1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

This slightly saucy book isn’t for the faint of heart – but then again, neither is writing. In true Anne Lamott fashion, she tells it like it is,and does it with her unique style of compassion, brilliance, and humor with an edge. She offers us her own writing experience as a guide, including practical exercises and recommendations, along with a fair share of well-placed cautions.

I won’t spoil the mystery of the title by telling the story behind it, but I do admit to feeling a bit like a bird nudged out of the nest by a no-nonsense Anne Lamott momma bird who knows I can fly but makes me prove it. Just what many of us writers need.

2. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no One Right Way to get our best writing done. If you don’t believe me (and even if you do), read this book: 161 examples of how well-known writers, artists, scientists, and other brilliant folks coax out their best work (or for some, simply ANY work at all). Yes, there are the expected daily walks, ridiculous amounts of coffee or stronger beverages, rising with the dawn or writing with the night, but there are plenty of surprises here.

Long after finishing this book, I carry the mental images of the rituals of these greats who’ve gone before me, and I feel connected somehow, validated somehow, as a true member of this varied, off-center, deeply determined, creative lot. Come join our party.

3. Handling the Truth: on the writing of memoir by Beth Kephart

Is it possible to feel both held and pushed by the words of another writer? I didn’t think so – until I read this book. Perhaps it’s the beauty of Beth’s writing that wraps so gently around me that I don’t realize the challenge in her instructions until I’ve already internally committed to trying each next tactic.

Never mind if you’re not trying or aspiring to write memoir; the lessons here cross genres, and simply immersing yourself in her writing style will open new possibilities for how the stuff of life can be seen, described, and cared for. Get this book to increase your vocabulary, hone your craft, embrace your art.

[Note: this book is a perfect complement to Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. Read them both together (same time or one right after the other) to saturate yourself with two different writing styles and two different focuses (foci? focuseece?) both supporting similar writing truths.]

4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

I got this mighty little book in hardback – the kind with a classy golden bookmark ribbon thingie attached – and I’m glad I did because the content is exquisite, and the book itself needs to stand up to my frequent trolling for quotes. I so appreciate how Natalie easily takes us to the depths of a writing practice, and shows us by example how we might live a writing life.

Get this book, grab your notebook, and join Natalie and me in your closest coffee shop.

5. The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

I feel as though I stumbled upon a writing coaches magic tool with this book. I recommend that clients read it, and the next time I read their writing, it’s changed – richer, deeper, more vibrant, more intriguing. So, I ask them what changed, and I kid you not, their answer is that they read Glass Castles. Huh. All that from a memoir, NOT a how-to book on writing.

If you want to learn how to write about the intensities and abuses of life truthfully, yet still somehow with compassion, read this book. If you don’t care about writing memoir, read this book anyway because it’s just an amazing story of delight within the context of human resilience. Gather your snacks and clear your calendar because this one will be hard to put down.

6. Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

No matter how many times I try to NOT use the word “grace” in describing Dani and her writing, I still use it. Because her writing gathers you in so gracefully, powerfully, unexpectedly – and her deeply reflective, honest, wise and welcoming words feel somehow like an act of grace from one writer who’s been there to another who’s going there.

We get such valuable glimpses of Dani’s writing life and her spiritual life (is there really a difference between those two?), tucked in between the advice she offers and the techniques she models so well.  This woman has been through life’s wringer — several times — and came out writing.  We could do well to learn from her example.  Start reading Dani, and I bet you’ll start writing.

[Note: this book is a perfect complement to Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart. Read them both together (same time or one right after the other) to saturate yourself with two different writing styles and two different focuses (foci? focuseece?) both supporting similar writing truths.]

7.  Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened by Allie Brosch

Now why would I recommend a cartoony, rather over-the-top book about random stuff to writers?? Because it’s Hi.Lar.I.Ous. And brilliant. And we need to remember not to take ourselves too seriously, even in the midst of very serious life stuff. And besides all of that, the writing plus drawing = genius.

Always read this book with an empty bladder because you’ll laugh hard enough to lose control, several times.

Ok, there, those books should keep you busy for at least a week or two.  If you have other must-read books to recommend, or additional comments about the books I’ve listed (pro or con), please do share in a comment or three below.

Note: Although some books on my website are affiliate links (meaning I get a minuscule percent of sales), I recommend ONLY books or products I truly value. Scout’s honor.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Kephart April 16, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Starla, you have written so beautifully about all of our books here. I feel, thanks to you, both held and pushed. Thank you so much.


Starla J. King April 16, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Ah, Beth, it’s a privilege to share word space with you… and apparently heart space. Here’s to the reading/writing giving/receiving cycle!


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