Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
First things first: if you want to write, you’ve gotta sit your butt down in that chair (or bed, if you’re Capote or Proust; or you can just stand like Hemingway—whatever) and work. How long should you work, you ask? Well, let’s take a look at Mason Currey’s wonderfully informative (and a bit discouraging) book Daily Rituals, in which Currey briefly explains the writing schedules of 161 major authors. Take your pick: you could work the not unreasonable hours of 9 am to noon, like Thomas Mann did, or you can take the graveyard shift and work on and off from 5 pm until 3 in the morning, like Fitzgerald did (or tried to do; he was off partying many of those nights). But if a rigid routine is not your strong suit, maybe you can take after Sylvia Plath, who could never nail down a solid writing routine. Or if you’re just obsessed, you can work 12-hour days like H.L. Mencken (but I wouldn’t recommend it).
Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores
Most writers have their go-to bookstores, the ones they haunt and peruse and buy from, and hopefully one day they’ll get a chance to hold an event there for their just-published book. In cartoonist Bob Eckstein’s delightful book, he presents 75 paintings and a wonderful selection of stories from some of the best bookstores around the world. You’ve got plenty to choose from.
Last Night’s Reading: Illustrated Encounters with Extraordinary Authors
After selecting your bookstore/s, we must discuss readings. Yes, some writers adore the attention of a public event, while others (most, I think) find them to be nerve-wracking, spirit-crushing torture fests. Luckily, the wonderful Kate Gavino captures them in Last Night’s Reading with charm and artfulness—but most importantly, because Gavino draws some well-established authors who are by now to a certain degree used to such performances, her illustrations show the fan’s side of things, which should inspire and encourage young writers nervous at taking their place at the podium. Readers are listening! They’re interested in what you have to say! Each of Gavino’s drawings is accompanied by a quote from the subject. Here’s my favorite, from Donna Tartt: “If you’re not enjoying something, it’s almost always because you’re doing it too fast.” So don’t let your nerves get the best of you; take a moment and heed Tartt’s advice. Enjoy the reading, if you can!
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview
Ursula K. Le Guin
One thing a writer can’t avoid is the interview. Sometimes irksome, sometimes challenging, sometimes exhilarating, but always necessary, the interview can be approached in myriad ways. The Last Interview series, because the books present the final interview with each subject, feature people who’ve mastered the tête-à-tête. A fascinating glimpse into the final period of artists like Ursula K. Le Guin, Graham Greene, Nora Ephron, and Roberto Bolaño, this series is a must for anyone interested in the art of conversation.
With all this writing, we sometimes forget that authors live real human lives. In Parisian Lives, Bair takes us into the world of two of the 20th century’s most striking and brilliant voices, thereby showing that even the most austere or impossibly cerebral writers are also normal people with everyday desires, needs, and behaviors.
The Destiny Thief
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Empire Falls collects 11 essays on various aspects of craft, character, and living the scribbler existence. Informative, honest, and elegant, Russo’s The Destiny Thief is a must for any wannabe.
The international bestselling author of the beloved His Dark Materials series, Pullman, like Russo, offers a master class on creating effective and evocative narratives. Here he not only gives advice on writing, but also delves into the artists and figures who inspired his work.
A Writer's Life
The Writers' Trust of Canada
For the past quarter-century, the Writers’ Trust of Canada has commissioned talks from some of the country’s most preeminent authors—including Timothy Findlay, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, and Margaret Atwood—on the subject of “the writer’s life.” Collected together in a wonderful anthology, these lectures bring extraordinary insight to what it means to be a steward of the written word.
A Writer's Life
One of the 20th century’s most revered journalists (from his groundbreaking profile of Frank Sinatra in 1966 to his monumental book on the New York Times), Gay Talese, in A Writer’s Life, takes aim at himself, and the result is just as brilliant and perceptive as anything the master nonfiction writer ever produced.
Like all of her writing, Eudora Welty’s vital handbook for fiction writing—the of course economically titled On Writing—is concise, to the point, and deeply authoritative, all while being an absolute joy to read. For those looking for insights into the construction of fiction, On Writing is a necessary work.
Jorge Luis Borges
One of the most original and beguiling fiction writers to ever live, Jorge Luis Borges, in this collection of pieces, takes you behind the scenes of his innovative and inimitable stories. Filled with surprising candor and masterful wit, On Writing is sure to charm as much as it enlightens.
Not everyone’s going to like what you write; in fact, some may even believe you evil or immoral for something you’ve written. In Salman Rushdie’s fascinating memoir Joseph Anton, the true heart of it focuses on what happened after the Ayatollah Khomeini for writing his novel The Satanic Verses. The book is riveting not just for the story of what Rushdie had to go through (intense security, safe house confinement), but how it changed Rushdie as a person and a writer.
Suppose there was some kind of mysterious portal into a magical realm, and you, for all your life, have wanted nothing more than to march right up to that enchanted threshold and toss your body through it. But let’s say, too, that there have been others who’ve entered the portal before you, but when they report about their experiences—reports full of wondrous creatures and fantastic occurrences—their language is riddled with irked reservations, petty complaints, and seemingly obstacle-less problems. Yeah, they seem to say, the realm’s an incredible place—you ain’t seen nothing like it. But does it have to be so damn chilly all the time? Sure, no one actually complained about the chilliness of the place, but they may as well have. Because for you, simply getting into the portal is the whole point of your life, and yet here are these ingrates acting like it’s some burden to exist in a world of imagination.
This is what it’s like, sometimes, for wannabe writers to hear the grievances of their literary idols. How could they complain, for instance, about how hard writing is? How could they kvetch about deadlines—or interviewers—or critics—or sales—or reputation—or money—or fame? Aren’t they aware of where they live? How could they act like it’s anything other than paradise? Are they trying to sabotage your ambition? Do they hope you’ll heed their advice and stay put in the non-magical world of everyday life so that they keep all the exotic accoutrements for themselves? Are they just… full of shit?
Writing as a vocation comes, like any job, with its own set of rascally and rambunctious aspects, and with its proprietors prone to peccadilloes. But there are also things about being an established writer that are very difficult to explain to those who’ve yet to achieve some semblance of success. For a young writer, the mere fact of getting published, or of earning any amount of money, seems an impossible dream—and so hearing those who’ve managed such feats (and more!) complain about their situations… well, it can seem a bit ungrateful. Entitled, even. But I’m here to tell you that while, of course, in every vocation there are those who will do nothing but grumble about every perceived slight or disrespect that seems to come their way, it is still true that being a professional writer isn’t easy, nor do the perks outweigh the many drawbacks.
Here are 12 books that speak to different aspects of the writer’s life. Keep in mind that I’m not trying to discourage anyone from becoming a writer; rather, I’m merely trying to honestly prepare those about to pursue a career in letters. (Because no one who really wants to write can be turned off by… writing.)
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