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The Ten Books Every Aspiring Writer Needs to Read

I started taking my writing seriously when I was a freshman in college (and an aspiring writer) and took my first real creative writing course. Over the years, I learned from writers like Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, Kevin Brockmeier, Deirdre Madden, Katherine Vaz, Ethan Canin, and more. These are the ten (heavily-worn) books I have kept with me during many, many moves.

1. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Natalie’s experience in Zen meditation is everywhere in this 1986 classic. She offers solid advice on many aspects of the writer's craft: on writing from "first thoughts" (keep your hand moving, don't cross out, just get it on paper), on listening (writing is ninety percent listening; the deeper you listen, the better you write), on using verbs (verbs provide the energy of the sentence), on overcoming doubts (doubt is torture; don't listen to it). Read Now

2. If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Carl Sandburg called "If You Want to Write" the best book ever written on how to write. This book is a shining, positive light for aspiring writers that encourages the spirit. Read Now

3. Telling Stories by Joyce Carol Oates

This anthology for writers is based on the syllabi for Oates’s many courses at Princeton. It is a broad collection of brief, essential work to read – including early stories by famous writers, poetry, memoir and diary excerpts, and just plain good stories. The best way to learn to write is to read what’s been written already, and this is a great way to do that. Read Now

4. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

First published in 1934, this classic recaptures the excitement of Dorothea Brande's creative writing classroom of the 1920s. Her words are still just as valuable today, nearly a century later (“Observe that you are to be your own best friend”). She talks about harnessing the unconscious, the discipline of writing, how to be original, and how to learn from others. Read Now

5. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

This book is often recognized as perhaps the best book on writing ever written. He uses his own teaching experience and detailed excerpts from classic works of literature to discuss the craft of writing in depth. Read Now

6. On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

I first read this when I was still just writing stories, but I so badly wanted to be a novelist. This gave me the insight I really needed at that early stage of my life. Anne Tyler reviewed it best when she called it "a miraculously detailed account of the creative process." Gardner discusses the life, joys and difficulties of the writing profession. Read Now

7. In a Field of Words by Sybil Estess and Janet McCann

This practical, step-by-step guide for beginning-level creative writing students helps aspiring writers find words for their stories and give them shape. This text addresses poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. It is an invaluable resource I used in my classroom many times when I was teaching creative writing to university students. Read Now

8. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Oh, Anne Lamott. How I love her. She is a breath of fresh air and encouragement in what can be a very competitive and rejection-filled profession. Buy this book and never let it go. It will carry you through hard times. Read Now

9. On Writing by Stephen King

Stephen King is known for his horror genre writing, but he is also an expert at the craft of fiction. No writing library can be complete without this book. Read Now

10. Poems, Poets, Poetry by Helen Vendler

Even if you’re a fiction writer, you should still understand the basics of poetry. If you only read one book about poetry, this should be it. It doesn’t just teach you how to write poetry, but how to see the beauty in reading it. Read Now

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