Reads on Writing


I usually start the term in my College Writing courses by writing the above quote on the blackboard. The response I get from my students typically ranges from blank stares to sheer bewilderment. How could the act of writing ever be rewarding, they wonder.

Well, for one, writing is a surefire way of saying, “hey, I’m here.” It’s a way of showing what you think and why it matters. Lamott says that writing “provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.”

I agree. I find that writing is also, for me, a way of thinking, of puzzling out problems and pondering dreams. I also love language, the sound and shape of words and all their surprising nuances. Writing is creating, and therein lies my reward.

“The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Although I’m taking the fall semester off from teaching (I’m working on another master’s in library science), I thought that in the spirit of back to school I’d offer you a few of what I think to be fine books on the art of writing.


Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster, (Harcourt, $13). This is Aspects of the Novela delightful classic taken from the Clark lectures Forster Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, (Random House, $13.95). From the author of Traveling Mercies and Crooked Little Heart, comes what is one of the most down-to-earth books on creative writing out there. Lamott’s voice is quirky and honest, and she’s full of practical advice on both the technique and mindset required for writing. Her sense of humor may not be for everyone; but she lays bare all the self-doubts and defeatist thoughts that plague most writers, which makes us feel better about our own writing. Some of my favorite chapters: “Shitty First Drafts” and “Radio Station KFKD.” A must read for any writer who needs a little encouragement — or inspiration.delivered at Cambridge in the spring of 1927. As the title suggests, this is more of a critical look at the novel as art form, rather than a direct how-to on creating that art. But understanding the elements of the novel and how they work together to produce the dearly sought-after willing suspension of disbelief is a sound starting point. Plus, you get a healthy dose of Forster’s characteristic wry English humor. Aspects covered include the story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, and pattern and rhythm.

The Elements of Style: Illustrated, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, (Penguin, $24.95). Not quite Sports Illustrated, but just as guilty a pleasure for the grammarian. This venerable style manual’s cosmetic overhaul relieves it of what some may have perceived as its long-standing stodginess. Maira Kalman’s splashy illustrations make reading about the correct usage of “which” and “that” and “lay” and “lie,” as well as the advantages of conciseness, a delight. The book is a shining example itself of the adage that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. The best illustration: a depiction of the proper way to break “knowledge” with a scholar in his study above “know” and a window and its ledge above “ledge.” Great fun.

The Ode Less TravelledThe Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry, (Penguin, $25). This is my personal favorite of the bunch. Because I, like Stephen Fry, have a terrible confession to make: I like to write poetry. If you’d rather die than make a similar admission but have even a passing interest in poetry — or perhaps a favorite poem, even if it’s just one — then I heartily recommend this book. Fry (yes it’s the same actor/comedian/novelist whose performance as Oscar Wilde in Wilde still has me in awe) has ambitiously broken down the elements of poetry from the iamb to the pantoum and explains them with vivacity and wit. He also borrows from a feast of poetry written over the centuries to illustrate his points. Best of all, he gives exercises that force you to write — and have fun. He completes the exercises himself, and shares the sometimes embarrassing results. The Ode Less Travelled will leave you with a newfound understanding of and appreciation for how poetry works. Fry shows you that it’s silly to be afraid of the trochee — okie dokie?

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg, (Shambhala, $12.95). Similar in spirit to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Goldberg, who teaches writing and has authored ten books including this bestseller, presents clear advice on writing in workshop style. Unlike Lamott, she gives many more exercises and writing prompts. The chapters are short but pack a punch, such as “The Power of Detail” and “Don’t Marry the Fly.” This is the perfect book to turn to when (dare I say it?) you might be feeling the dreaded block. 

2007 Writer’s Market, Robert Brewer, (F&W Publications, $29.99). So you’ve written something you feel pretty good about and want to get it published? The Writer’s Market guides are the place to go. Whether you’re shopping an article on aeronautics or a book on the ivory-billed woodpecker, you’ll find lists of agents and publishers, magazines and editors with contact information and areas of specialization. You’ll learn whether the agency or publisher is accepting unsolicited manuscripts and how to submit them. You’ll also find help on crafting a good query letter. Writer’s Market is an indispensable manual for anyone seriously thinking about getting published.

2007 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Lauren Mosko, (F&W Publications, $26.99). Same as above but with a focus on the fiction — specifically, the novel and short story.

Sharpen your writing skills.
Until next time,
Elizabeth Frengel


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