The Craft of Writing: Reading Books About Writing

Oh gosh, I was going to post another of David’s reviews of books on writing that he loved and found inspirational. But then I found his explanation on his blog about why he got started reading books on writing, and, it was just so lovely and touching and sweet. Here it is:

“Way back in June, Cate Sweeney (of Selfish Jean fame: Selfish Jean: Sweeney, Cate: 9780230001855: Books) was about to teach a workshop, and polled various folks about their favorite books on writing. In my case, this had roughly the same effect as asking an apartment-bound dog if he’d like to go for a walk. I bounded about, knocked over lamps, and frantically tried to find my leash. I even mailed her three books of which I had duplicates. (Two of them I had in paperback, then found them used in hardback, and the third…oh, why am I explaining this?)

For, you see, I read a lot of books about writing. More than you can imagine. Especially when I was working at my first novel, I found them a great thing for filling in spare moments. (Hey, we don’t watch TV—our set is hooked only to our DVD player, and has no cable or even antenna—so you gotta do something.)

Admittedly, most books on writing aren’t very good, and some of them are downright wrongheaded. But even those are fun, because of the furious arguments I have in my mind with the author—which often serves to clarify my perspective.

There is also the phenomenon, which I recognize from yoga classes, where an instructor will say something that hits me like a sharp slap. (Usually it’s something like, “The purpose of this posture is to stretch your ankles. Your forehead isn’t connected to your ankles. Scrunching up your forehead won’t help.”) When I tell her after class how helpful it was, and ask why she never mentioned it before, she usually says, “What do you mean? I always say that.” So, sometimes I apparently don’t hear things the first ten thousand times. And sometimes I don’t hear what books say, either, until fifty books have told me the same thing.

I don’t really know how many books I’ve read on the topic.

(Though I could come up with a damn good guess just by counting them. Anyhow, less than 200, but more than 100. Unlike most people, I find nonfiction to be more effortless to read than fiction, because with nonfiction I can pick it up, set it down, pick it up again, read it for five minutes while waiting for a phone call. I hate doing that with a novel.)

So, I plan to tell you—even though you didn’t ask—though Cate foolishly did—what my dozen favorite books on writing are.

I need to issue a disclaimer, however. I don’t like books that assign me “exercises”; if we aren’t playing for keeps, I find it hard to give a damn, so I don’t do exercises. And I’m not crazy about ‘inspirational’ stuff, like Writing Down the Bones ( or Let the Crazy Child Write (, though I recognize they are the sort of thing some people like best. What I really enjoy is, well, shoptalk—where working writers share what they know as if you’ve gone out for a beer together. So my selection is very biased indeed.

And, to add a second disclaimer, I plan to cheat. In some cases, two or more books by the same author will be treated as a single unit. This isn’t one of those ‘desert island’ things.

And even if it were, I’d still probably cheat. (Did I ever mention that I spent a lot of time in juvenile correction facilities as a youth for an obscure crime labeled “incorrigibility”? Well, okay, and for some other things, too.)

Oh, and if anyone would like to toss in their own suggestions, please do. Some time back, Neil Ayres recommended Mat Coward’s Success…and How to Avoid It, and I’ve been grateful ever since. (And I see that Matt Curran has posted about a favorite book of his which I now plan to track down.)”

–David T. Isaak (14 January 2008)

1 thought on “The Craft of Writing: Reading Books About Writing”

  1. I have just started thinking seriously about writing a book and self publishing. I would very much like to hear other peoples’ thoughts on this process. Thanks!


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