Friday, October 13, 2017

Moonlight Musings

What Are Your Favourite Books for Writers?

(Don’t tell me you don’t have any!)

I’ll tell you mine:

For sure you’ll know the ones at the top of my list. Always and forever, Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES and its sequel, WILD MIND. A friend introduced me to BONES soon after it was first published in 1986. I immediately loved and embraced it, and have come back to it repeatedly over the years. WILD MIND was published in 1990, and I was given that one by another friend soon after. ('More of the same good stuff,' she said. Indeed it is, and not merely repetitive but taking things a little further.) 

I knew about free association, in its psychological context and as a tool for writers – but Goldberg’s concept of ‘timed writings’ made it easy and delightful, an all-purpose method. And she presents it in a most engaging way, her own writing endearing and positively inspirational. There are a lot of other great pieces of advice for writers in these books, too, all drawn from personal experience and all revving up my excitement about writing.

The other one I keep coming back to, published in 1994, is Julia Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY, her 12-week course for ‘discovering or recovering’ the artist within. It’s not only for writers, though her most famous method (a way of dumping extraneous thoughts out of your head, leaving your mind clear to create) consists of writing ’morning pages’ every day. I write them, I lapse after a while, I eventually remember and start again…. I have actually done the full 12-week course, which has other components as well, several times over.

So those are at the top of the list, and please note that both authors have also written other excellent books for writers, which are worth exploring too. In fact, I own and use a number of them.

The precursor of these books was Dorothea Brande’s BECOMING A WRITER. I think I read about it somewhere, a long time ago; some writer I admired recommended it highly enough for me to seek it out and get my own copy. Back then it was the book – before Goldberg and Cameron produced theirs.

From Brande I learned about making an appointment with yourself every day, to write for 15 minutes, scheduling it in at the beginning of the day; and to treat this as ‘an appointment of honour’ which must not be broken except in direst emergency (e.g. your dog gets injured and must be rushed to the vet). If you do have to break it, you immediately reschedule it in your head – just as if you were negotiating an important meeting with a VIP. (You are!) 

She has a number of other effective ideas too. I know they work; I tried them all. This book was first published in 1934, was re-issued in 1983, is still available in paperback, and now includes Kindle and Audible editions.

I should also mention the ultimate book for journallers: Tristine Rainer's THE NEW DIARY, first published in 1979, with a foreword by Anais Nin. It was groundbreaking and thorough, and I believe everything that has been written since about journal writing owes a debt to Rainer. 

These are books for writers in general, as distinct from poets – in fact Brande assumes fiction writers – though on the whole they are as useful to poets as anyone else. There are many other good books for writers, and several of them are on my shelf. The ones I’ve mentioned just happen to be the ones I most highly recommend. Also, they have not gone out of print, which tells you something.

What about books specifically for poets? 

Yes, there are a number of them too.  They come in different kinds.  

The How

There are those which discuss the poetic basics such as metaphor, metre and form (i.e. prosody: the art / science of versification). I think we all need to come to grips with those things. I believe we need to know our craft. 

I started making poems when I was very young; and a family friend who was a teacher explained to me about prosody when I was maybe nine. He advised me which book to get to study it further. It was the late Australian poet James McAuley’s VERSIFICATION. I see with surprise that it is still available in paperback and hard cover from Amazon.

I don’t know what else is available because I haven’t needed to know – except for Stephen Fry’s THE ODE LESS TRAVELLED, which I encountered somewhere and dipped into. In scholarly mode rather than wearing his comedian’s hat, he obviously knows what he's talking about and expresses it clearly. Lots of people declare that they love and value this book.

The What

Contrary to what I just said about the necessity to learn prosody, a friend whom I consider a brilliant poet writes only in free verse. However, she does know her craft; its just that it’s a craft which doesn't include formal metrical or rhyme schemes. 

She likes books which suggest new subjects to write about and where to find yet more; various ways to revive flagging inspiration; and technical questions – such as whether to write in the first person, if breath dictates line length, and how to circumvent the cliché. Kim Addonizio’s ORDINARY GENIUS and Sage Cohen’s WRITING THE LIFE POETIC are examples. They are excellent, comprehensive books, and do include some discussion of form. I own both, and still refer to them, but they are not the kind I like best of all.

The which 
(i.e. which way?)

I love free verse too, and probably use it most often, but I also enjoy playing with form. And I’m particularly interested in process – in the various ways by which one might create a poem: not only form and technique but also approach and structure; not only craft and pattern but also games and disruptions. 

Each of the books I most often turn to these days when I want help has recently gone into a Volume II (so, four books in all). They are WINGBEATS: EXERCISES AND PRACTICES IN POETRY, by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen, and THE CRAFTY POET: A PORTABLE WORKSHOP, by Diane Lockward.

Both consist of chapters written by a number of different poets, with tips, exercises, and examples. They suggest crazy things like turning a poem around and writing it backwards to see where that leads, or detaching oneself from the left margin and wandering all over the page to learn what effects that might create. They show you in detail how to make a poem funny; or instruct you to use a different, specific constraint for every line – mentioning a flower here, counting syllables there…. They have you writing really bad sonnets on purpose; or trying out ways to make the title play a larger role in a poem. They remind me that art is play. I have enormous fun with them.

Note: Diane Lockward also publishes a free newsletter you can subscribe to by email, from which both volumes of THE CRAFTY POET were drawn, and which offers opportunity for (optional) participation as well as learning.

So what are your favourite books for writers, and why?


  1. Thank you Rosemary for the thoughtful post. I have some of the books you talk about, and others. And I reach for them regularly. xoxoxo

  2. Oh what a WONDERFUL post! I adore Natalie Goldberg, and haver all of her books. Another VERY favourite writer is Annie Lamott. Her Bird by Bird is fantastic, as are all her other books. I have them all and adore her quirky humour. A less known yet inspiring book is Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, by Christina Baldwin. I love Brande's formula of writing every morning. I usually do, mornings being my best time for writing. I love the sound of Wingbeats and The Crafty Poet and will try to track them down. Love the unusual ideas and suggestions which would be fun to try. This was lovely, Rosemary. Food for thought - and practice of the art of poetry.

    1. Oh yes, I have Bird by Bird too! And love it, along with many others I didn't mention above (though that is the only Lamott; didn't realise there were more treasures to find). I stuck to my own personal top favourites, or it would have been a VERY long article! And, like you, I have all Goldberg's books, and love them all ... but those first two the very most.

    2. Anne has written several memoir/philosophy type books - she is so quirky and funny and lovable..........and she blogs a column I see on facebook sometimes...........

  3. What an interesting article, Rosemary. I too own Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. My copy of Wild Mind is autographed, as I heard her speak here in the city some years ago. I know Natalie Goldberg has a following ( have her books but am admittedly a cynic), but truly after hearing her speak I wondered what she had written besides her "how to" books. I wonder really if SHE has written any successful novels or successful books of poetry. She does writing workshops, but does she really write the kinds of things she strives to inspire others to write?

    I would be more inspired, I think, by someone like Marge Piercy (who Susan attended a workshop with) who has actually written and published poetry.

    One book I own which has been useful when I have experienced writer's block is Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg. Actually it is one that is recommended by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way. I like it because it gives quick ideas on each page. Smiles. Another book that I have used is The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn & Chase Twichell.

    Mostly for inspiration I have read other poets' poetry & been inspired by the poetry rather than by reading books on writing poetry. Ha, sometimes I am even inspired by PU poets. Smiles.

    Great topic, Rosemary. Interesting book suggestions as well. I look forward to reading what others have to say.

    1. It would surely be a wonderful treat to attend a Marge Piercy workshop. Her poems and novels are brilliant and I'm mad about them!

      Natalie Goldberg has also written a successful novel, some thought-provoking memoirs, and was first acclaimed (as a very young writer) for an award-winning book of poetry. It's just that the how-to books were such runaway successes that they have eclipsed the others, in her reputation.

      You have mentioned a couple of books I had not heard of; always good to know what else is around.

      And yes indeed, the work of other poets is often the most inspiring of all. (Smile.)

  4. Enjloyed this article Rosemary. I wrote "morning pages" for years after reading Julia Camrons's books. I also love Natalie Goldberg. I must confess, though, that I have only read a few books on poetry and none of them remarkable. I started experimenting with poetry as a means to perfect my prose. However, I fell in love with it. I appreciate your recommendations and know that I should sharpen any raw skills I may have but up to now, I've been lazy about studying poetry technique. I hope I get motivated someday. For now I like to read poetry and hope i learn from this.

    1. Myrna, I believe reading poetry is the very best way to learn! I think, doing that, one absorbs the techniques as if by osmosis. (Grin.)

  5. Yay! My library has The Crafty Poet, so I ordered it in.

    1. Great! Enjoy! (You'll be renewing it, I shouldn't wonder.)

  6. A fascinating and edifying article - just the thing to fire up those motivational and inspirational embers. I have bookmarked it, as a resource. Thanks for this, Rosemary!

  7. The only book on the list is "The Ode less travelled" which I found to be an amusing book to read. Personally I think it's easier to find inspiration and advice in books about other subjects such as art or music. Sometimes I would think when reading - "how could that be expressed in words ?"

    1. Ah yes, there are many possible sources of inspiration. I love your question to yourself!

  8. i am not really a fan of "how to" books, so i don't remember any books for writers, though i have read some. plus, i do not make my money from writing. however, when i was a correspondent for my company, they sent me for a week-long workshop at a newspaper. i found out writing news and features is very different from writing a novel or poetry. there are very strict rules (and i do not really like rules). :)

    The only poetry "how to" book i have is "The Haiku handbook", which i think is a very useful resource. anyway, i think a poet should have an open mind, and explore all forms, including free verse. i find inspiration from almost anything, the classical masters, the 20th century poets, science fiction, artworks, movies and songs. :)

    an excellent article, Rosemary!

  9. Thank you for the excellent prompt, Rosemary. I love "Nine Gates" and "Ten Windows" by Jane Hirschfield. Stephan King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" is a must read for anyone interested in writing.


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