Did you always want to be a writer? Probably few people ask plumbers or stockbrokers if they’ve had lifelong dreams of pursuing their chosen profession, but the making of a writer is endlessly fascinating to readers. Of course, what the question really means is, tell me what you were like as a kid, did you read constantly? Did you stay inside writing epic poems in old English while the other kids were out back playing on the Slip n’ Slide? When did you first know you had something to say, and what made you think others might want to read it? And for aspiring writers, those questions lead to more self-interested queries: tell me how to do what you make look so easy but I know is actually impossibly hard. While no writer gives away all her secrets, several have written books trying to unpack the mysteries of what they do and why they do it.
"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott
When Anne Lamott’s brother despaired of ever finishing a major report on birds (a three-month assignment he was just beginning the day before it was due), his father told him to take it “bird by bird.” Lamott doesn’t say how the report turned out, but she took her father’s advice to heart, forcing herself to sit at her desk every day and, bird by bird (or, word by word) write several novels. In this memoir/how-to, we learn who Lamott is as a person by reading about who she is as a writer -- jealous, insecure, prone to procrastination, paranoid, impossibly funny and more than a little wise. In other words, how could she have turned out to be anything but a writer? Drawing on both her own childhood and her experiences teaching writing to students, who, inevitably, after she delivers a heartfelt paen to the joys of self-expression, ask if they really need an agent to get published, Lamott’s memoir both demystifies and exalts the writing process.
"On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King
“This is not an autobiography,” Stephen King writes at the beginning of this book. “It is, rather, a curriculum vitae, an attempt to show how one writer was formed.” But it is a memoir of sorts; the first and third sections deal with King’s childhood, and his recovery from being hit by a van just as he was starting work on the book. From his childhood, a “fogged out landscape from which occasional memories appear,” he retained enough raw material -- creepy babysitters, poison ivy outbreaks, demented teachers, and an abiding love of monster movies -- to inform his career as a bestselling author of more than 50 books (and counting). The middle section of the book deals with the nuts and bolts of writing, from what to read to how to get paid. Aspiring writers will be interested to learn that for King, plot matters less than characters, and what happens to them when they’re faced with a problem and have to work themselves free.
"The Writing Life" by Annie Dillard
In “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott says she tries to write as if each day were her last. In this meditation on what it means to be a writer, Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” says she writes as if each day were her reader’s last. The question becomes, “what could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” For Dillard, each writing day is a new opportunity for failure, one in which “you make the path boldly and follow it fearfully.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of Dillard’s advice concerns how to know what to throw out. However, this slim book of personal essays about writing is less a straightforward how-to guide than a philosophical exploration of the life the author has chosen, one that brings her terror and frustration, but also moments of deep satisfaction. Although she claims to hate writing, she has done it all her life, often in remote cabins where there are no distractions to keep her from the dreaded task.
"Reading Like a Writer" by Francine Prose
Though Prose teaches creative writing workshops, in this book the novelist argues that the best way to learn to write is through close and careful reading. She begins by describing a high school assignment to circle all the references to eyes and sight in “King Lear” and “Oedipus Rex.” Initially insulted by the tedious task, she soon realized that by paying close attention to the texts, she began to feel as if she was “engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.” Though this book is packed with examples from other works, we also get glimpses of Prose’s evolution as a writer, from an escape-seeking child who was more interested in her novel than the view of the Grand Canyon on a family vacation to the prize-winning author of “A Changed Man” and “Blue Angel.”