Beyond the MFA: 10 Great Writers on the Writing Life

This weekend, more than 10,000 writers and readers will descend on Boston for the 2013 conference and book fair organized by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Hundreds of panels and presentations will aim to give writers and students an inside look at the publishing business, while agents and editors will hear pitches from aspiring authors and share their own wisdom about what it takes to succeed. There are now more than 500 college programs that aim to teach students how to become writers -- but what do writers themselves think about how, and why, they do what they do? Here, we’ve assembled ten of the best memoirs and meditations on the writing life, from inspiration to publication.

Eudora Welty’s spare and concise "On Writing" was originally part of a larger book, "The Eye of the Story," and it wastes no words or time striking to the heart of what makes fiction work. With chapter subjects including place, voice, memory, and language, the book draws on Welty’s own expertise and her sensitive close readings of a wide range of stories and novels in order to create an indispensible single-volume guide to the craft of writing and the life of a writer.

One of North America’s most eclectic and beloved authors, Margaret Atwood brings the authority of her experience to bear on her collection "Negotiating with the Dead." Tackling questions both large and small -- from the existential quandary of what it means to be a writer, to the everyday frustrations of the literary life -- this candid inquiry dispels the mystique of writing, in conversation with contemporary and ancient masters of the art.

Similarly concerned with the mysteries of writing and the neverending riddle of how to do it well, Norman Mailer’s "The Spooky Art" exposes the undercover life of the novelist. Frank, funny, and opinionated, the book collects Mailer’s own wisdom as a fiction maestro alongside studies of craft and technique in a range of other genres. Part handbook, part memoir, and part dinner-party conversation with a dazzling array of imaginary guests, from Faulkner to Freud to Jonathan Franzen, Mailer’s book is essential reading for the fearless writer.

In Joyce Carol Oates’s "The Faith of a Writer," the immensely prolific novelist, poet, and memoirist discusses her childhood inspirations and gives a glimpse of the varied and unpredictable mindset of the writer at work. She pays tribute to the writers who have inspired her, and at the same time emphasizes the importance of hard work, patience, skill, and dedication: “Inspiration and energy and even genius are rarely enough to make ‘art’: for prose fiction is also a craft, and craft must be learned, whether by accident or design.”

Finding one’s voice as a writer involves complicated negotiations with memory and identity -- never more so than when that identity is layered within a tormented post-colonial past. In "Reading and Writing," West Indian novelist V.S. Naipaul revisits his childhood in Trinidad and his English education in a memoir reflecting on cultural assimilation and dislocation, how a child becomes a writer, and how the novel emerged in the Victorian era as a unique form for depicting contemporary society.

A classic guide to the writer’s craft, Anne Lamott’s "Bird by Bird" is one of a handful of books that belongs on any MFA student’s bookshelf. Her title comes from a family memory, of her brother’s procrastination-induced panic at a homework assignment to produce a report on birds, and their father’s advice when the task seemed insurmountable: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” In a similar tone of solidarity, intimacy, and encouragement, Lamott urges the reader on through the unglamorous daily slog of writing.

Often cited along with "Bird by Bird," Stephen King’s vivid writer’s memoir and practical handbook "On Writing" was recently re-released in a tenth-anniversary edition with an updated reading list. The book combines advice about literary technique with two sections of autobiography: the first depicting King’s childhood and his early struggles to become a published author, and the second examining the essential role writing played in his recovery from a road accident that almost killed him during the writing of the book.

Two books titled "The Writing Life," by Annie Dillard and Ellen Gilchrist, explore the practical and emotional challenges of combining art and literary creativity. Dillard, a self-styled “gregarious recluse,” offers an idiosyncratic, witty, and tough-minded approach to a demanding life that deserves to be taken seriously and undertaken with passion. Gilchrist’s collection of essays and meditations on writing, teaching, and editing take a breezier tone and more practical approach to the reality of a working writer.

The novelist, poet, playwright, and memoirist Christopher Isherwood was a central player on the twentieth-century English literary stage. "Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties" is the absorbing tale of his coming of age as a writer, alongside outsized talents like his friend, lover, and collaborator W.H. Auden. The memoir brilliantly evokes the perennial struggle of young writers to throw off the weight of the past and the distractions of the present, in order to find their unique voice.

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