In The Way of the Fearless Writer, Beth Kempton outlines a creative practice inspired by Buddhist philosophy. In a departure from advice that centers on “painful effort,” Kempton contends that becoming a “fearless writer” requires embracing three principles: “desirelessness” teaches writers to “serve the writing, not the ego”; formlessness encourages them to freely “spill” their words onto the page before fashioning them into a shape; and “emptiness” urges writers to see “through [their] fixed ideas about separate selves” so as to write without fear of critique. Kempton weaves abstract musings with practical suggestions and mixes Buddhist principles with writing advice in seamless, down-to-earth prose.
For some reason, most writers I know seem to think the best way to get better at writing is to ask someone else for their opinion of what they have written, which usually leads to a sometimes excruciating and occasionally devastating critique session. Six books in—and having been on the receiving end of such destructive criticism—I can tell you there is a much healthier way to get better at writing, which is to hone your own evaluation skills and learn to trust your own opinion of your work. The best way to do that is to read and write a lot. I sometimes wonder if the money spent on creative writing degrees might be better spent on a big stack of books, a pile of good pens, and a few days in an Airbnb now and then to give you the headspace to write.
Here are 10 books (plus a word of caution, see below) which have made me a better writer because of the advice they offer, the masterful way they are written, or because their words drifted off the page and implanted themselves in my being, nudging my own words awake.
This book taught me how to notice the world and write about it. John McPhee has spent more than 50 years writing profiles for the likes of the New Yorker and Time magazine and offers rare insight into every stage of the process, from interviewing, drafting, and revising to working with editors. He is self-deprecating yet luminously wise, and his authority as a writing teacher is evident in the masterful prose laid down on every page..
Mark Nepo’s words have been a friend by my side for as long as I can remember. He uses language to weave readers into the web of life, so we feel held, seen, and a part of something beautiful. Drinking from the River of Light reminds us that to be human is to be creative, and it contains a host of gentle practices to guide us back to the source of creativity within ourselves.
I first knew Peter Levitt as a translator of the Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan. Like many talented translators, Levitt is a poet himself, and I find his approach to writing in Fingerpainting on the Moon both unexpected and delightful. His writing prompts are fresh and original, and they helped guide me beyond the obvious to the hidden places where the best work is born.
4. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg
I just love this lesser-known cousin of Goldberg’s classic Writing Down the Bones. It celebrates the messiness of writing, encouraging you to move toward, not away from, the truths that rumble inside you. Goldberg is the ultimate permission giver, not just handing out permission to write, but to be every part of the wild human that you are and put that on the page.
5. Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (*Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
I haven’t written a novel (yet), but I found this book surprisingly helpful for shaping my non-fiction self-help books. It’s not prescriptive like some other novel writing books, but it does offer strategies that really work to make your overall piece into something compelling. Cron demonstrates the process of working one-on-one with a writer in the early stages of her novel, allowing readers to see the story take shape on the page. I found this unusual approach very helpful for applying the strategies to my own work.
6. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi
This fascinating book, which explores how writers and cartographers use some of the same devices to map out a place, space, or idea, brought a whole new dimension to my writing. “Each of us stands at one unique spot in the universe, at one moment in the expanse of time, holding a blank sheet of paper,” writes Turchi. This single line sparked an entire book for me. I wonder what Turchi’s observations and insights might spark for you
When I grow up, I want to write like Maggie Smith. The pieces of this memoir fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw, each connected to the others but also a sculptural beauty of its own. There is so much poetry in Smith’s prose that I had to read some pages three times, out loud, to take it all in. Whether you choose Smith or another writer, it is excellent practice to identify someone whose work you admire and read everything they have written. In doing so you can observe their evolution as a writer and take note of all the ways they offer up their life on the page.
8. Rhythms and Roads by Victoria Erickson
Victoria Erickson’s poetry is raw and beautiful. She speaks through the page unfiltered, and her words burn through each layer of my skin to reach in deep. Reading this book, and her debut, Edge of Wonder, made me realize that sometimes what arrives first is best, and that editing should only serve to enhance what is there, not silence or strangle it. The wildness in these poems gives you permission to be wilder in your own writing.
9. Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte
If you ever get stuck for something to write about, pick a word and dive in deep. Explore its etymology, feel the word roll off your tongue, consider all the ways it fits into the human experience. And then write about that. If you want some inspiration, read Consolations, a gorgeous collection of essays exploring 52 ordinary words, in a way which elevates them to poetry.
This book is worth reading for the single insight that ideas visit us, and if we are not ready to bring them to life, they move on to someone else. It is an inspiring, urgent call to crack on and write, or otherwise create, and not let fear stop you for one more day.
*A word of caution: books are magic. Sometimes they give us the confidence to begin, or motivation to continue. Sometimes they sweep us away with their beauty and inspire us to be better. This is all good. By all means, read such books, but don’t read so much that you have no time left to write. Because the single best way to become a better writer is to write. A lot. Write so much that you no longer care about any particular word or sentence and can let go of anything you have written to make space for something better. And then keep writing until “better” comes, because it will, and you will know it when it has arrived.