It’s me again, your writing-obsessed friend. We are friends, right? I think part one of this short series was introduction enough in terms of why I think we should all write, at least a little bit.
Below you’ll find three books that have changed the way I write. All of them were recommended to me by another writer. I have well-loved physical copies of each one in my home. Give them a whirl and expect to feel and write inspired.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Oddly enough, while King is the most renowned of the authors on my list, I have not read one piece of his fiction. On screen and in print, I am not attracted to horror as a means of entertainment. What I read in the war genre does the trick for me, personally. So, I honestly can’t tell you from experience that On Writing is the work of a brilliant novelist. If you’re looking for that I can refer you to the fairly lengthy list of writing awards he has received.
What I can tell you is that this is the book to read if you don’t know how to start writing. This a book written by a man who knows how to get it done. The first half of his book is the story of how he became a writer, and the second half is King’s practical guidance for writing.
I read On Writing and found myself relating to King, one of the most successful authors of the modern world. Mainly, because he makes it clear that his success was ultimately not born of talent, but hard work. He lays out his framework for getting the work done and makes you realize that you can do it too. And as anyone who writes a lot knows, believing you can do it is half the battle.
“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings.” — On Writing
Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Lamott gives some of the same advice as King — most notably, in my opinion, that writers must make themselves write every day. But overall, Lamott’s book is the instruction manual for building a life raft when you’re on the deserted island that is writer’s block.
She writes about the challenges of writing in such a way that you don’t just believe they can be overcome, but the challenges themselves charm you, in a sense. Her title comes from a story she tells of her brother despairing because he waited until the night before a birdwatching project was due to begin it, and their father tells him, “Bird by bird.”
Lamott tells us writing is much the same: You tackle the specific task right in front of you.
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.” — Bird by Bird
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
This is perhaps an odd book to include because the writer isn’t trying to give other writers wisdom. Instead, Vance writes well about something that matters a great deal to him but that is rarely written about. His book is the perfect example of why writing well about what matters is so priceless.
Vance was raised in an economically challenged area in the rustbelt of Ohio and went on to graduate from Yale. Hillbilly Elegy is about how he got from one place to the other, and as he describes the challenges facing his community, one begins to understand why his success is so rare among those like him.
It is a culture fraught with poverty, substance abuse, and relational turmoil. His book is heartbreaking and enlightening. I am married with two children, and I read this in one sitting. If you don’t think that’s impressive, you probably don’t know many children.
Ultimately, if you look at the acclaim that his book has received you see two primary responses: Those who, like me, were able to understand something they hadn’t before. And those who finally felt they were represented.
He was interviewed at last year’s National Book Festival in D.C., and his interviewer attributed Vance’s book’s New York Times bestseller status to three things:
- Vance’s clear, crisp writing style
- Vance’s remarkable life story
- The relevance of the book, given the current opioid epidemic
Vance does what King recommends: He writes about what is hardest to say and in doing so creates a unifying piece of writing. It’s the perfect example of why writing matters and how writing can change people.
According to the education experts at Concordia University, 26 percent of kids will see a traumatic event before their fourth birthday, and 60 percent of adults report difficult family experiences or abuse during childhood. Yet, Hillbilly Elegy was one of the first times I witnessed someone so openly demonstrate what that actually means in the real world.
“I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children … I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.” — Hillbilly Elegy
You may not be writing an entire book to showcase the challenges facing a demographic, but maybe you want to write a letter to your dad about some of the events of your childhood. Maybe you’re writing a cover letter in the hopes of getting your dream job. Maybe writing lifts the stone of anxiety off your chest, and you’d like to do a good job of it while you’re anyway practicing self-care.
My goal in life is unabashedly to encourage as many as possible to read and write as much as possible. When I walk through town, I fantasize about everyone holding a book instead of a phone. When I have a day off, I head to the library. When I pray for my daughters, among other things, I pray they get all of their father’s qualities, but that the one thing they get from me is a love of writing and reading (and Thai food).
Writing and reading are like clean drinking water: if have access to it, you hardly pause to consider its value. Some days, you don’t drink any at all. But the moment you turn the faucet on and the water appears tinged brown, you’re parched.
So, please, I beseech you, drink up while you can.