Books about Writing and Creativity

Now that I’m back to blogging, I want to get right back to what this blog was supposed to be about: book reviews! It might be kind of ironic that during the time I was not writing on this blog, I read a few books that are supposed to motivate writers. Don’t consider my laziness an indictment on these works, though.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee


This book focuses on screenwriting, and it uses lots of examples of famous movies, dissecting classic scenes in detail to show how and why they work. This approach, careful study of the masters, is a useful skill and exercise for any writer. I think the book’s advice is probably good for most forms of storytelling. The writing method it recommends and teaches is very formulaic, and probably most useful after you have a draft already written and are looking to tighten and edit it and find its focus.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield


This short, motivational book advises treating writing like a job (even if you already have a job). Pressfield is tough on would-be writers; his book acts as a kind of kick in the pants. I’ve written before about why I object to time management ideas like “if you care enough about something, you’ll make it a priority.” Sometimes, no matter how much you want something, the circumstances of your life make achieving it impossible, at least temporarily. For that reason, there were some times when Pressfield’s “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” tone struck me as condescending and privileged. If you can get past that, I’m sure it’s good advice, though.

The Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays by Kameron Hurley


In telling the story of her beginning as a writer, Hurley uses some of the same “bootstraps” tone that Pressfield does. This set of personal essays and nonfiction focuses on writing and on feminist media critique. She makes some great arguments for the importance of inclusive media. Topics addressed include Gamergate, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and fat-shaming.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert


This is my favorite of these writers’ self-help books by far. Liz Gilbert acknowledges how hard writing is, in a way that’s encouraging and inspiring. More than any of these writers, she addressed the obstacles artists face, and the fear that can keep writers from writing. At the advice of Oprah, she wrote the book to be applicable to all forms of creativity, not just writing. She also addresses issues of fear and confidence in a way that is smart, brave, and compassionate. I really like how pragmatic she is about the relationship between art and commerce (and graduate school). I saw Liz Gilbert when she came to Nashville on her Big Magic book tour, and she had a public conversation with Ann Patchett sponsored by the library. She is online a lot, posting lots of positive messages on facebook and twitter.

Bird By Bird

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott


This little book has been recommended to me several times, and unlike Lamott’s parenting memoir, I found it worth the hype. Its message and ideas are really pretty simple, and not much that I hadn’t heard before, but it was nice to see this wisdom about writing packaged in such a concise, easy-to-digest format. Lamott spends a lot of time talking about the advice she gives her students and the dialogues and exchanges she has with them as she pushes their writing to its potential. It’s easy to see why the book is used so often in writing workshops: it seems so native to that environment. Her advice about publication seems spot-on as well. It’s a kind of love letter from Lamott to her profession, articulating very well what appeals about the arduous life of a writer. There are multiple chapters one could bookmark to reread when facing particular dilemmas. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to write. It is encouragement–it gives courage, and that is what a writer needs most.