Books to Enhance Your Writing
These are books you read that can, in some way, help you write your own book (or whatever other written format you are drawn to). I have read and vetted each one. I have brought together four groups for your benefit:
1. Books about the writing process.
2. Books about what’s inside you — to help you be with yourself in a good, true, self-trusting way, all of which will affect how you write.
3. Books that are not directly about writing, but whose wise and masterful contents can help turn your writing into artistry.
4. Books by authors whom I have worked with as clients. Not only because they are my clients (though that counts), but also because these books can help you experience valuable things within yourself, which then can bear fruit in your writing.
5 .Books worth reading because they are affecting and well-written — that can bring you into their world successfully, and spark the seeds of your own good writing.
In all cases, they are worthwhile reads. And it’s essential for writers to be readers!
“If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it's not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source. . . . Dogen, a great Zen master, said, ‘If you walk in the mist, you get wet.’ So just listen, read, and write. Little by little, you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
When you see a book you want, just click on the link. You’ll be taken to IndieBound, which sources books from independent bookstores around the country. You can choose to pick up your purchased book(s) at a local independent bookstore (where — who knows? — you may someday do a reading from your own book), or have it shipped to you. I am a proud affiliate of IndieBound.
(Be sure to return to this site, afterwards. There are still wonderful things awaiting you!)
Books about the Writing Process
IN THIS SECTION: Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande / Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg / Starting Your Book: A Guide to Navigating the Blank Page by Attending to What’s Inside You, by Naomi Rose / From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler / Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True, by Elizabeth Berg
Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. (New York: MacMillan; 1934, reissued 1996; Foreword by Malcolm Bradbury) / Genre: Creative Writing (Fiction)
Although I link to a free PDF version of this book (see “Inspirations” subpage of the “Resources” page —click here), I think it is well worth owning your own print copy of this classic book on writing. First published in 1934, it has stood the test of time, as fresh now as ever it was when the author penned it in all wisdom and generosity.
Here’s what the Foreword to the book by Malcolm Bradbury has to say: “What makes good or great writing is not the simple ability to follow habits and customs; it’s the presence of a strong and original vision that employs writing as a medium of exploration. The crucial fact is that writing starts long before we begin writing this novel or that story — in the sensibility, self-control, and originality of a particular writer. . . .
“This isn’t a book about How to Write a Novel, nor how to write any particular kind of book at all. It’s about what must happen before that: the mysterious process of first becoming a writer, acquiring the writerly instincts. . . . Making the unconscious conscious, and making the conscious tap the elements that are less than conscious — is an essential part not just of the process of writing, but becoming a writer in the first place. . . . One of the most truthful thoughts in this very truthful book is the repeated implication that only part of the business of writing can ever be consciously taught. Most has to be discovered, from within. . . .
“Writing is will and imagination; it depends both on unbidden impulses and on careful, considered dedication to the tools of language, the techniques of composition, the powers of art. . . . The hardest, the loneliest, the most uncertain time is at the beginning, when we are trying to become a writer. As a wise, sensible and honest guidebook to that — and the continued problems and possibilities of writing, once becoming has turned into being — Dorothea Brande’s book simply can’t be bettered.” PURCHASE HERE
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg. (Boston: Shambhala; Anniversary edition, 2016) Genre: Any.
This is a different kind of classic among books on writing than Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. Here, freeing oneself from the inner critic is addressed through specific writing advice, much of it wild, witty, in-the-moment, honest, and based on the author’s years of Zen practice. Her suggestions on craft include: staying with your “first thoughts” (avoiding editing); listening (Goldberg views writing as “90 percent listening"); using verbs for sentence-energy; overcoming doubts (“doubt is torture; don’t listen to it”)—even on choosing a restaurant in which to write. Writing is viewed as having not only its own reason for being, but also as a practice that helps writers comprehend the value of their lives. Chapters titles are idiosyncratic to the author — examples: “Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger,” “Man Eats Car,” “Be an Animal.” This book can be worked with fruitfully both individually and in groups. PURCHASE HERE
Starting Your Book: A Guide to Navigating the Blank Page by Attending to What’s Inside You, by Naomi Rose. (Oakland, CA: Rose Press, 2011) / Genre: Any
This is my book; of course I want you to read it. Born from years of trying to write by paying attention to everything except what was true for me, I gradually came to realize that I was leaving out the most important part. There are not many books that focus on the person doing the writing; I sought to remedy that with this book.
Starting your book is not a formula you need to learn. It’s an organic growth that can only come out of you. You are essential to writing the book rooted in your heart, and this presence is your real gift to yourself and your readers. As you get more and more acquainted with what’s inside you, you’ll find that writing your book flows easily, surprising and frequently delighting you with what — and who — you find.
“"It is difficult to explain the feeling you have when you read something true. It feels like love, or gratitude, or a connection to something larger. This is how I feel when I read [this book]. The deeper place that her words emerge from serve to invite and induct me into a more heart-full and connected place within my own writing. Her book has been a solace and a reminder that I do have something to say. We all do." — Shelley Klammer, from the Foreword of the book.
From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (NY: Grove Press, reprinted 2006) / Genre: Fiction (but nonfiction writers can also learn from this approach)
This is a deep and most unusual book about writing, one I highly recommend. The author, a Pulitzer Prize Winner, has been an actor and teacher as well as a writer. And although his focus is on writing fiction (and fiction may well be what you write, or want to write), I also believe that his counsel can apply to nonfiction, which can tends to remain exclusively in the mental, analytic sphere and can often use an infusion of the kind of telling detail that can only be called forth from a felt sense in the body and imagination. So this way of writing requires being in the bodily experience of the moment, and being able to call that back within the writing so that it, too, is a lived, felt experience.
Here are a few nuggets of wisdom from the book:
“Artists are intensely aware of the chaos implied by the moment-to-moment sensual experience of human beings on this planet. But they also, paradoxically, have an intuition that behind the chaos there is meaning; behind the flux of moment-to-moment experience there is a deep and abiding order.
“There are lots of people who believe there is order in the universe . . . but the artist is comfortable only with going back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered — that is, moment to moment through the sense. Then, selecting from that sensual moment-to-moment experience, picking out bits and pieces of it, reshaping it, she recombines it into an object that a reader in turn encounters as if it were experience itself: a record of moment-to-moment sensual experience, an encounter as direct as those we have with life itself. Only in this way, by shaping and ordering experience into an art object, is the artist able to express her deep intuition of order. . . .
"Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. . . . Even if you can by force of will insert some nicely observed sense details into the work, you'll find the work moving toward analysis and description and generalization and abstraction when, in fact, in the work of art the most important moments are the most sensual of all, the most in the moment."
The author gives some very specific guidelines for writing a novel this way. You may wish to try them out, or not; but either way, this is a very valuable book to have read, because it will begin to call up a different kind of intelligence in you, which will bring you to the page in a more embodied way. PURCHASE HERE
Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True, by Elizabeth Berg (NY: Harper Perennial, 2012) / Genre: Fiction (but nonfiction writers can also learn from this approach)
Elizabeth Berg is one of my favorite contemporary novelists. She does “write true,” and after reading almost every one of her books (she has published over 20, many of them award-winners), I come away nourished, deepened, more good-humored, and glad to be of the human species. Her novels are small in scale and always intimate, and so I find her to be an eminently credible authority about how to write something “made up” (i.e., fiction — although nonfiction writers can learn a lot from this book as well) that springs from a nuanced degree of noticing. I’m sure I am drawn to her writing because it is kindred to my own sense of the intimate aliveness that the process can offer. As she writes, here:
You know the phrase, "It's always the little things"? In writing, it is always the little things--it's the details, and the authenticity in those details, that make a character and a story come alive. And it's our eye seeing and writing those details in the most natural way you can that means you are writing in your own voice. Get out of your own way and let the story happen.
But how do you get out of your own way, really, get your self off your shoulder? How do you become less self-conscious and more accepting of your own creative process? I can only describe it as a leap of faith, a process of letting go and giving yourself over to an inner guide. It's a lot like falling in love, that scary letting go and learning to trust in something outside yourself. But once that kind of trust is achieved, something else, something deep inside you, takes over when you write. It is at that point when you really do begin to feel that you are just the typist. And it is at that point when you start to feel terrific, because honestly, it feels like magic. I think it probably is. . . .
Try to be ever observant, to look beyond surfaces. Let yourself feel everything that you can. When you listen to the way people talk, hear the phrasing, the accent, the pauses, the pacing, the words beneath the words. As a writer, you should have a sticky soul; the act of continually taking things in should be as much a part of you as your hair color. . . .
I also appreciate that — in these days of being exhorted to have your market niche in mind before you even start writing a book — she, too, advises that you write to please yourself.
When you're writing, worry only about how you feel about what's appearing on the page, not the opinions of others you've heard talking about writing. Consider only this: What are you trying to say? How does it feel, the way you are trying to say it? Does it feel right? Does it please you? That's it. No one else should be in your head when you write--not your editor, not your lover, not your readers.
Berg’s good advice about such storytelling elements as plot, voice, and characterization is laced with the same intimate, good-humored quality that appears in her novels. She also has good suggestions about such elements of the writing process as the daily routine and getting unstuck. She also provides readers with a cornucopia of writing prompts to open up the imagination and an eye and ear for details — probably more than half a year’s worth.
Berg’s view is that writing can — and, indeed, must — be an act of love, not an angst-filled struggle. Love had been her writings’ guiding star for many years; and then suddenly, briefly, she lost that hold. Self-doubts and fears replaced the joy of sitting down to write. She searched for a book that could address her situation, and — finding none that quite fit the bill — wrote her own. In the process, she wrote herself back into love with writing, and — to our benefit — was able to articulate how to get so close to ourselves (whoever it is that we are writing about) that, throughout the process, love is all there is.
NOTE: If you’d like to experience Elizabeth Berg “first hand” (well, virtually) as she speaks to a library audience, the “Inspirations” page on the RESOURCES tab of this site will give you that pleasure — click here to see it. And if you want to read Escaping into the Open cover to cover for yourself, you can PURCHASE IT HERE.
2. Books to Help You Be with Yourself in an Authentic, Loving, Masterful Way
IN THIS SECTION: Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic, by Mark Coleman / Living from the Heart: Heart Rhythm Meditation for Energy, Clarity, Peace, Joy, and Inner Power, by Puran Bair
Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic, by Mark Coleman, (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2016.)
The “inner critic” is the downfall of many a writer, those who are highly experienced as well as new. Its tendency to rear up at the least movement of excitement or confidence in our hearts about our writing projects can slay the best of intentions, the most beautiful of aspirations. Because we tend to believe these inner, critical voices, we don’t have tools for distinguishing between helpful pointers and demolishing self-judgments. This compassionate, wise book charts the origin and destructive patterns of the inner critic — and gives us ways to diminish its power and connect with the fount of goodness and trust within us that is realer than anything the critic may level at us. Read this book to get your true inner Friend onboard with your writing. PURCHASE HERE
Living from the Heart: Heart Rhythm Meditation for Energy, Clarity, Peace, Joy, and Inner Power, by Puran Bair. (NY: Three Rivers Press, 1998).
There is a simple yet almost miraculous power available through our very own heartbeat! Learning and working with its rhythms can bring about the inner states we long for, and those will enable us to move through life in a way that will bring us the results we desire. This innovative, Sufi-based meditation method for improving daily life can be applied to improve physical health, enhance intuition, concentrate personal power — and, by extension, help you to write the book you yearn to bring through. Suitable for beginning as well as experienced meditators.
As the book puts it:
“The one who is led by the breath is the slave of life, and the one who controls breath is the master of life. The words ‘led by breath’ mean that it is the breath, its speed and its change into different elements and into different directions, which conducts all the affairs of man’s life. Man, ignorant of the fact, is led by the breath and experiences conditions in life as they happen to come, and therefore life becomes not his kingdom but his prison. When man becomes aware of this truth he wishes to gain control of his thoughts, feelings, passions, and of his affairs.
[As the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote:] “‘Realize that you are a participant in all the situations of your life, and that your participation changes the outcome of everything that happens. Nothing is happening “to” you; everything is happening “with” you. You are fully involved, and your every breath, especially the way you breathe, is one of the forces that determines what happens. Keep your breath flowing evenly to dispel feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, and fear. . . . Life is a flow, like a river. There must be taking in and giving out. This cycle works best when the inflow and outflow are even.’”
The book has four parts, each with relevant chapters: Part I: “How Heart Rhythm Practice Works”; Part II: “The Practice”; Part III: “The Elements of the Heart”; and Part IV: Continuing Your Practice for a Lifetime”
What a simple, doable, though little-realized, way to connect to your true nature — when writing your book, and in living your life. PURCHASE HERE
3. Books to Spark Your Subtle Awareness and Artistry
"It's a beautiful thing to listen to yourself. Then you write your own book." — Sherif Baba
IN THIS SECTION: The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music, by W. A. Matthieu / What to Listen for in Music, by Aaron Copland /
The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music, by W. A. Mathieu (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2011)
This wonderful book is indeed about music, which may interest you in its own right. But more than that, it is about listening. All singers, whether soloing or in chorus, are exhorted to “listen to the sound” as they sing it; and that attentive listening turns out to be what allows the beautiful sounds to come forth. Listening well is the true foundation of true writing, in my view; and this book helps you explore the limitless dimensions of your own potential listening, here constellated around the focus of music. As the official synopsis puts it, “The Listening Book is about rediscovering the power of listening as an instrument of self-discovery and personal transformation. By exploring our capacity for listening to sounds and for making music, we can awaken and release our full creative powers.”
You could play with what’s in this book and discover or enhance your inherent musicality — what a joy in its own right! And, you can take what you discover in yourself through listening, and begin to listen to what’s in you as you go about writing your book. (A good pairing with my book, Starting Your Book, in Section 1 above.) PURCHASE HERE
What to Listen for in Music, by Aaron Copland (NY: Signet, 2011 [reprinted])
The great composer Aaron Copland can teach us a lot about real listening. The “author” of musical works such as “Appalachian Spring,” “Billy the Kid,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and many other classics of the mid-20th century, Copland had a gift for power and lyricism, and his music evokes a deep and varied spectrum of emotional responses in the listener. Yet as spontaneous as the finished works appear, Copland was an assiduous learner, studying with famed teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and creating his own musical idiom that we are now so used to, thanks to him. Copland’s seriousness about the inquiry into music — what is it, how does it do what it does, and what makes for a good listener — is our gain. Because in reading his authoritative reflections on listening to music, we get to learn about listening itself, and see how it can open up in us through our minds as well as our ears.
What has this to do with deep writing? The writer’s ability to listen is the cornerstone of writing that resonates deep into readers’ minds and hearts. Whatever we can learn from Copland’s mastery can become our own. Then we can bring it to our process of writing and hear its living pulse even as we pen the words. PURCHASE HERE
4. Books by Authors Whose Books I Have Helped Develop
IN THIS SECTION: Gifts of the Mandala: A Guided Journey of Self-Discovery, by Clare Goodwin; Essential Speaking: The 7-Step Guide for Finding Your Real Voice, by Doreen Hamilton
NOTE: The first two books are relevant to writing your book. The rest are valuable to read and reflect on, and don’t directly pertain to writing a book.
Gifts of the Mandala: A Guided Journey of Self-Discovery, by Clare Goodwin. (Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press, 2016)
In this gorgeous book, studded with jewel-like, colorful mandalas, Psychosynthesis therapist Clare Goodwin introduces what mandalas are, how they have been used over the centuries (Tibetan monks and Native Americans provide two examples), and — the point of the book — how we can use them to draw and write our way into wholeness. By following “the four essential guiding principles for creating mandalas” that Goodwin offers — “(1) Make a circle. (2) Fill it in. (3) Let go of Judgments. (4) Have fun” — we can articulate our inner conflicts (for instance, the “inner critic” and the “inner champion”) as visual images within a circle, enabling our inner wisdom to bring them into wholeness. There are exercises, and even black-and-white mandalas included that you can color.
For a reason that will become obvious to you in just a moment, one of my favorite parts is where the author shares her process of writing this book. She writes: “Knowing that practical help would benefit my process, I began working with Naomi Rose, book whisperer and coach for authors. At one point, when I was feeling particularly stuck, she asked a profoundly insightful question: ‘Have you created any mandalas for how you are feeling about writing the book?’ Now why didn’t I think of that? If coloring mandalas helped to create an atmosphere for healing cancer [she had just survived Stage IV cancer], surely it would help with writing and publishing a book.” She then shares the colored-in images she created that helped bring her back into the flow: (1) An angry scribble in red and black titled “‘No Real Color Red’ — book project mired in the swamp”; (2) Five days later, the author drew a circle made up of a mother bird with open wings hovering over the egg in the nest below, with musical notes plinking throughout, titled “‘Call and response.’ I hear the call of the book. “Don’t crack open that egg. Wait for the right timing. You are not alone. Listen to the voice of your muse.”’” (3) Two days later, the inner process had metamorphosed into a beautiful drawing of a circle containing a stone wall opening to grass and sky and birds flying above, and below is dark soil, a shovel, and unsprouted daffodil bulbs. This mandala looks spacious, trusting, fertile, and is titled “‘Daffodil Digging Dream.’ I had asked for dream help with the book. The result: “Dig deeper. There is buried treasure. Have faith in the blossoming spring.”’” Your own inner treasure may be helped to surface with this wonderful book, in relation to writing your own book and much more. PURCHASE HERE
Essential Speaking: The 7-Step Guide to Finding Your Real Voice, by Doreen Hamilton, PhD.
I recommend Essential Speaking not only because Doreen was my client, but also because so many of the factors that transform a terrified speaker into a speaker who is wholly present, heart-centered, and generous of intent also apply to writing. When we face the blank page, often (thanks to our “inner critic”—see Make Peace with Your Mind in #2 above) we freeze, experiencing that blankness as a judgment on our lack of ability and worth. Essential Speaking takes its readers through the author’s personal journey of stage-fright as a speaker, and into a whole other way to be with ourselves (and our audience) as we let ourselves share what’s in our hearts to share, and thereby connect with those who hear us (think: read us). A deeply helpful book for anyone who yearns to be authentic when speaking/writing his or her truth. PURCHASE HERE
5. Books Worth Reading for Their Own Sake
IN THIS SECTION: