Best Books for Writers

From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.

  • On Becoming a Poet

    by
    Susan Terris, editor
    Published in 2022
    by Marsh Hawk Press

    “While modern creative writing programs seek to develop the talents of maturing writers, essential information about the initiation, development and processes of the writing craft can be discovered in the early memories of established writers—material that has not usually been available in the classroom,” writes poet and editor Susan Terris in the introduction to this unique anthology of essays and interviews of acclaimed poets, including Denise Duhamel, Rafael Jesús González, Jane Hirshfield, Arthur Sze, and Lynne Thompson. The twenty-five poets in this collection tackle topics such as how they found their poetic voice, how they dealt with racial and gender discrimination, and how they keep writing despite rejection and disappointment. Through these intimate essays and interviews, one can see that there is more than one way to become a poet and that, quite often, true inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1732614130
  • The Heart of American Poetry

    by
    Edward Hirsch
    Published in 2022
    by Library of America

    “This is a personal book about American poetry, but I hope it is more than a personal selection,” writes critic and poet Edward Hirsch in the introduction to this Library of America anthology with essays reflecting on forty poems that have made an impact on his life and how they might help guide and connect readers through difficult times. Featuring the work of poets such as Anne Bradstreet, Julia de Burgos, Lucille Clifton, Joy Harjo, Langston Hughes, and Phillis Wheatley, each essay both carefully contextualizes the biography of the poet with the chosen piece and analyzes in detail the language and mechanics driving the emotion behind each poem. Hirsch’s expertise and adoring relationship with verse shines through in every essay, as he makes clear why poetry matters. “There is a conversation in American poetry that is also a colloquial about American life,” writes Hirsch. “Each individual poet, wittingly or unwittingly, consciously or unconsciously, contributes to this exchange and discussion.”  

    ISBN: 
    978-1598537260
  • About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews

    by
    Samuel R. Delany
    Published in 2006
    by Wesleyan University Press

    “Though vast numbers of people want to write fiction, the educational machinery set in place to teach people how doesn’t work very well. While this book puts forth no strategies for correcting the situation, it discusses some reasons why this is the case,” writes award-winning novelist and critic Samuel R. Delany in the introduction to this 2006 book on the mechanics of fiction. A professor of literature and creative writing for many decades, Delany discusses the art of writing fiction—through essays, personal letters to other writers, and interviews—as well as examines the conditions of the contemporary writer, explaining why literary reputations grow differently today than they did “twenty-five, thirty-five, and seventy-five years ago.” Organized in three parts, About Writing does more than offer basic elements of creative writing, it gives clear guidance on the life of a writer. As Delany puts it, this is a book for “writers who are not interested in formulaic imitation, at whatever level, however well done.”  

    ISBN: 
    978-0819567161
  • Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition: Toward a 21st Century Poetics

    by
    Rigoberto González
    Published in 2017
    by University of Michigan Press

    “I have always contended that the most important work being done today is in the field of ethnic letters. I’d like to add that within that field, the most critical pressure point pulses from the queer body of color—its representation and its cultural production,” writes Rigoberto González in the introduction to this collection of essays focused exclusively on writers of color, and particularly on Latino poetry. Divided into three sections—Critical Essays, Critical Reviews, and Critical Grace Notes—the collection discusses the works of contemporary writers such as Eduardo C. Corral, Natalie Diaz, Aracelis Girmay, and J. Michael Martinez along with venerable writers including Francisco X. Alarcón, Robert Hayden, and Juan Felipe Herrera. This installment of the Poets on Poetry series published by the University of Michigan Press demonstrates how writers who represent marginalized communities continue to reorient the direction of American poetry, and delivers rigorous, critical writing that will inspire generations of writers to come.  

    ISBN: 
    978-0472036974
  • In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing

    by
    Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
    Published in 2022
    by Europa Editions

    “I’m going to talk to you about the desire to write and about the two kinds of writing it seems to me I know best, the first compliant, the second impetuous,” writes Elena Ferrante to begin the first of the four essays in this slim but powerful collection by the author of the Neapolitan novels. Composed as lectures—the first three for the Umberto Eco Lectures series sponsored by the International Center for Humanities of the University of Bologna, the fourth for the Dante and Other Classics conference presented by the Association of Italianists—these pieces offer a look at Ferrante’s influences and inspirations as well as probing discussions of the work of Ingeborg Bachmann, Emily Dickinson, María Guerra, Gertrude Stein, and others. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1609457372
  • A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays

    by
    Randon Billings Noble, editor
    Published in 2021
    by University of Nebraska Press

    “Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer,” writes editor Randon Billings Noble in the introduction to this anthology of lyric essays. Featuring the work of writers such as Casandra López, Dinty W. Moore, Diane Seuss, Elissa Washuta, and Lidia Yuknavitch, this collection includes examples of four forms—flash essays, segmented essays, braided essays, and hermit crab essays—and concludes with a section of craft essays from six different authors offering their take on the art of writing lyric essays. Given the slippery nature of defining the form, each contributor supplements their work with a short meditation on the genre-bending form, making this book as much of a reference book as a thrilling read. “Lyric essays require a kind of passion, a commitment to weirdness in the face of convention, a willingness to risk confusion, a comfort with outsider status,” writes Noble.  

    ISBN: 
    978-1496217745
  • The Life of Poetry

    by
    Muriel Rukeyser
    Published in 1996
    by Paris Press

    “Do you remember the poems of your early childhood—the far rhymes and games of the beginning to which you called the rhythms, the little songs to which you woke and went to sleep? Yes, we remember them,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in “The Fear of Poetry,” the first chapter in this collection of essays that makes a case for the centrality of poetry in American life. In this 1949 American classic, reprinted in 1996 by Paris Press and with a foreword by poet Jane Cooper, Rukeyser explores the presence of poetry in our everyday lives and its lasting importance in forming a civil society. “A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response,” writes Rukeyser. For both experienced writers and those interested in forming a closer relationship with poetry, The Life of Poetry instructs and dares the reader to be changed by its words. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0963818331
  • Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

    by
    Melissa Febos
    Published in 2022
    by Catapult

    “These essays are attempts to describe the ways that writing is integrated into the fundamental movements of my life: political, corporeal, spiritual, psychological, and social,” writes Melissa Febos in the author’s note of Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, a collection of four essays on the emotional and physical work of writing about one’s own life. Febos mixes anecdotes from her own experiences—in academia as a writing professor and with addiction and sex work—with a thorough exploration of how to write about the body, the difficulties in writing about intimate relationships, and what it means for a writer’s personal essays to be dismissed as “navel-gazing.” While exemplifying the power of personal narratives, Febos offers candid advice, lessons, dangers, and possibilities for all writers seeking the courage to tell their own stories. “Write your life,” writes Febos. “Let this book be a totem of permission, encouragement, proof, whatever you need it to be.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1646220854
  • The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

    by
    Vendela Vida, editor
    Published in 2008
    by McSweeney’s

    In this collection of conversations between writers and their mentors edited by Vendela Vida, some first published in The Believer and others previously unpublished, the craft of writing is discussed as well as a wide range of topics including Buddhism, politics, and mountain climbing. Often characterized by a serious yet casual tone, the interviews feature Zadie Smith talking with Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem talking with Paul Auster, Susan Choi talking with Francisco Goldman, and Dave Eggers talking with David Foster Wallace. Through these intimate conversations, the personality of each writer comes through, offering insight into their thought processes and approaches to writing. In this revised and expanded edition, readers will get a peek into the concerns and interests of these influential writers through their inspiring and passionate dialogue. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1932416947
  • The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

    by
    Robert Pinsky
    Published in 1999
    by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    “The hearing-knowledge we bring to a line of poetry is a knowledge of patterns in speech we have known to hear since we were infants,” writes Robert Pinsky in the introduction to this poetry handbook with the intention to “enhance the reader’s pleasure in poetry through knowledge of a few basic principles and their tremendous effects.” Organized into five sections—“Accent and Duration,” “Syntax and Line,” “Technical Terms and Vocal Realities,” “Like and Unlike Sounds,” and “Blank Verse and Free Verse”—the former U.S. poet laureate guides the reader through the natural inflections of the English language, breaking down the effects these distinct sounds have on the experience of reading poetry. Meant for readers and poets of all levels, this guidebook of poetry not only takes on the task of explaining, in an accessible way, the music in poetry, but also includes a handy glossary of terms with accompanying examples that begs revisiting. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0374526177
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing

    by
    Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon
    Published in 2018
    by Tin House

    “The interviewers I fear most are the ones who’ve read what the publisher’s PR people say about your book, along with some handy pull quotes,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin in the introduction to this series of conversations on the craft of writing with David Naimon, host of the literary radio show and podcast Between the Covers. “Every now and then I meet one who realizes that what I really like to do is talk shop.” In these delightful discussions on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, Le Guin provides advice and guidance for any kind of writer across genres. The book demonstrates not only the range of Le Guin’s prowess and body of work—which includes poems, translations, essays, speeches, and novels—but the expertise of Naimon’s precise interviewing skills. “The good interview is like a good badminton rally,” Le Guin writes. “You know right away that the two of you can keep that birdie in the air, and all you have to do is watch it fly.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1941040997
  • The Little Death of Self: Nine Essays Toward Poetry

    by
    Marianne Boruch
    Published in 2017
    by University of Michigan Press

    “Is the poem a body? Underscore an honorable yes, and the poem keeps living. I swear it does, even after years on the page, sitting steely, all knowing enough,” writes Marianne Boruch in “The End Inside It,” the first of nine essays exploring the mysteries behind crafting poems in this Poets on Poetry series volume published by University of Michigan Press. The award-winning poet and professor applies the associative, playful quality of her poems into clear-eyed, daring essays, citing not only examples from iconic poets such as W. S. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore, but from various fields of expertise such as anatomy, history, medicine, photography, anthropology, and painting. The result is a poetic meditation on the nature of making art, leading readers and writers further into the dynamics of her probing mind. “I mainly wanted to return seriously to poets whose work I love, mull over the fact that writing and reading poetry alters us, that there is no us really, just the I/thou and stopped time when we pay close attention,” writes Boruch in the introduction. “And then we look back to a changed world.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0472053476
  • Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts

    by
    Matt Bell
    Published in 2022
    by Soho Press

    On the heels of his acclaimed novel Appleseed, published in July 2021 by Custom House and named one of Summer’s Hottest Books by USA Today, comes Matt Bell’s inspiring yet pragmatic guide to writing a novel. Drawing examples from writers such as Garth Greenwell, Rachel Kushner, Matthew Salesses, and Jeff VanderMeer, Bell approaches the writing (and rewriting) process in three sections—First Draft: Forward Progress, Generative Revision; Second Draft: Rewrite, Don’t Revise; and Third Draft: Refuse to Be Done—leading readers toward a layered approach to polishing by way of a checklist of tasks that can be applied to a manuscript one at a time. Along the way Bell avoids a one-size-fits-all approach and encourages writers to either dismiss or, better yet, subvert any of his strategies: “This book is here to serve you and your book,” he writes with characteristic pragmatism. “Only what’s useful to you applies.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1641293419
  • How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors

    by
    Wisława Szymborska, edited and translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
    Published in 2021
    by New Directions

    In this rare compilation edited and translated by Clare Cavanagh, Nobel Prize–winning poet Wisława Szymborska offers insightful advice, originally written anonymously for a column in the Polish journal Literary Life. Characterized by her biting sense of humor and wisdom, Szymborska’s advice is often unforgiving and matter-of-fact, providing criticisms as well as confessions that humble the most accomplished of writers: “I myself started out with rotten poetry and stories.” Illustrated with the poet’s own collages, this guide to the writing of poetry invites the reader into the mind and revelations of a beloved poet. “The strategic ‘we’ she employs in How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) does more than guide its readers through the joys—and miseries—of writing (and not writing) well,” writes Cavanagh in the introduction. “Her seriously lighthearted alter ego provides the closest look we’re likely to get at the marvelous workshop in which she drafted, revised, discarded, and sometimes, mercifully, even preserved the poems that make up her small, but weight oeuvre.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0811229715
  • The Route as Briefed

    by
    James Tate
    Published in 1999
    by University of Michigan Press

    The Route as Briefed is an eclectic collection of prose by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Tate featuring essays, interviews, journal entries, and even a recipe. Topics range from poetic influences to MFA programs, and from the role of humor in poetry to the nature of regional writing. An installment of the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry series, the book features Tate’s signature humorous writing style and is sure to entertain readers as well as offer instruction and introspection on the difficulties and joys of the writing life. This is an underrated writing craft classic by a beloved poet and teacher for any reader or writer looking for insight and inspiration. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0472066919
  • The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

    by
    Vivian Gornick
    Published in 2002
    by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    “To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing,” writes Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. “A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one.” In this seminal craft book on the art of writing nonfiction, Gornick makes visible and practical the task of casting one’s self into a personal narrative. Using experience from decades of teaching in MFA programs, the renowned critic and memoirist offers examples from the works of luminaries such as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and Marguerite Duras. Through intimate and lucid prose, this book provides guidance on how to identify truth in the words one reads and writes. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0374528584
  • The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison

    by
    Caits Meissner, editor
    Published in 2022
    by Haymarket Books

    “There is no technology more democratic than language. And so, let us sing,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts in the foreword to this PEN America writing handbook edited by Caits Meissner, which features over fifty justice-involved contributors offering inspiration and resources for crafting a literary life in prison. With essays by influential writers including Ellen Bass, Mitchell S. Jackson, Piper Kerman, T Kira Mahealani Madden, and Patrick O’Neil, this comprehensive resource begins by breaking down various genres of creative writing, then follows with the intricacies of crafting a writer’s life in prison and building a writing community, using a mix of personal experiences and expertise to contextualize the difficulty of launching one’s work into the world beyond the walls of a prison. Offering pragmatic advice and helpful writing exercises, The Sentences That Create Us is not only an urgent handbook for incarcerated writers and their allies, but a craft book that will instruct and challenge any writer. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1642595802
  • The Art of Description: World Into Word

    by
    Mark Doty
    Published in 2010
    by Graywolf Press

    In The Art of Description: World Into Word, a volume in Graywolf’s renowned Art of series edited by Charles Baxter, award-winning poet Mark Doty takes on the task of revealing the complexities of rendering the sensations of an experience. “It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see,” writes Doty. “But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes, and it immediately becomes clear that all we see is slippery, nuanced, elusive.” Through passionate, clear, and incisive meditations on the works of poets such as William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Elizabeth Bishop, Doty articulates what it is that makes the language of these masterful writers so precise and moving. Within this compact volume, readers and writers will enjoy and appreciate the deep consideration of the way words are used, both in poetry and in life. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1555975630
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

    by
    Francine Prose
    Published in 2006
    by Harper

    “Can creative writing be taught?” asks Francine Prose in the first sentence of Reading Like a Writer as she reflects on the people who have helped her become a better writer. The author, critic, and professor of literature guides readers through the tools of great writers—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, ZZ Packer—and breaks down elements of the craft into chapters such as “Words,” “Sentences,” “Dialogue,” “Gesture,” and “Details.” Mixing personal anecdotes with extensive passages from literature’s most celebrated works, Prose reminds readers to pay attention to words, the foundation of all creative writing. “Like most—maybe all—writers, I learned to write by writing, and by example, by reading books,” says Prose. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0060777050
  • A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry

    by
    Czeslaw Milosz, editor
    Published in 1998
    by Mariner Books

    Edited by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry includes three hundred poems written by poets from around the world and across the ages. Featuring the work of Judah Al-Harizi, Li-Young Lee, Anna Kamieńska, Antonio Machado, and Tu Fu, among others, the anthology is divided into evocatively titled sections such as “The Secret of a Thing,” “The Moment,” “People Among People,” and “Nonattachment.” Milosz provides a preface to each poem, making the book more than just an assemblage of writers from around the world, but an instructional and inspirational reminder of the power that poetry has to touch the soul. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0156005746
  • Seeking Wisdom: A Spiritual Path to Creative Connection

    by
    Julia Cameron
    Published in 2022
    by St. Martin’s Essentials

    Thirty years after her first book, The Artist ’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (TarcherPerigree, 1992), changed the way countless writers thought about creativity, Julia Cameron turns her attention to the concept of creative prayer. Starting with a secular appeal to experiment with open-mindedness, Cameron tells the story of how prayer led her forward at a time of personal crisis and helped her develop the creative tools she shared in The Artist’s Way, particularly Morning Pages, Artist Dates, and Walks. In her new book she shares a mindful collection of prayer practices that can open a writer’s “creative soul,” regardless of personal beliefs or religious practices. Through prayers of petition, gratitude, creativity, and others, writers are invited to step more fully into their creative practice. Billed as a “six-week program,” Seeking Wisdom should appeal to any fan of Cameron’s earlier nonfiction. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1250809377
  • Essays Two

    by
    Lydia Davis
    Published in 2021
    by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    In her 2019 book, Essays One, Lydia Davis offers her insights on craft and the writing life, while this follow-up volume concentrates on her expertise as a translator. Essays include observations on learning foreign languages, translating Proust from the French, and how her travels across the city of Arles in France influenced her writing. “The translation problems that you have struggled with the hardest, perhaps never satisfied with your solutions, will stay with you for a long time—you can count on it,” Davis writes. In eleven unique sections, including “Learning a Foreign Language: Dutch,” “Translating from English into English,” “Translating Michel Leiris,” and “On Translation and Madame Bovary,” Davis lets the reader in on her idiosyncratic way of approaching translation. Her clear and incisive prose carries all those invested in the mysteries and relationships between languages. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0374148867
  • Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic

    by
    Alice Quinn, editor
    Published in 2020
    by Knopf

    “Wherever these poets are writing from, they—and we—are together in this ‘sudden strangeness,’ possibly the most dramatic period most of us have ever known,” writes editor Alice Quinn in the introduction of Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, a timely anthology of poems, many of which were written in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The collection includes the work of over one hundred renowned and emerging poets such as Jericho Brown, Ama Codjoe, Fanny Howe, Ada Limón, Vijay Seshadri, and Jenny Xie. From fierce truths to dark humor, readers can share in the experience of being delighted and illuminated through this essential, urgent poetry anthology that addresses the fear, grief, and hope felt in these times. As Quinn writes: “These poems reflect how our poets are reckoning with this unforeseen calamity and reaching out to connect with us, their readers, to share the illumination of life that beckons to all in dark times.”  

    ISBN: 
    978-0593318720
  • Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century

    by
    Alice Wong, editor
    Published in 2020
    by Vintage Books

    “I grew up seeing very few images that looked like me in books, film, or television. In that absence, how does one realize that something is even missing?” writes Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, in the introduction to this powerful collection of essays by disabled people. Writers such as Jen Deerinwater, Ariel Henley, Jamison Hill, and Jillian Weise cover a broad range of topics in this anthology that invites readers to question their own understanding of an ableist society and gives voice to a generation of writers who are often underrepresented in the media and publishing industry. “These stories do not seek to explain the meaning of disability or to inspire or elicit empathy. Rather, they show disabled people simply being in our own words, by our own accounts.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1984899422
  • The Strategic Poet: Honing the Craft

    by
    Diane Lockward, editor
    Published in 2021
    by Terrapin Books

    “By observing, we see more. By describing what we can see, we understand more, we feel more. We discover something we didn’t know before,” writes Ellen Bass in “Craft Talk: From Detail to Discovery,” which introduces the first section of this comprehensive craft book edited by Diane Lockward, a follow-up to The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics and The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Each of the thirteen sections in the book is devoted to a specific poetic strategy—such as descriptive detail, diction, imagery—and begins with a craft talk by a renowned poet followed by prompts and sample poems as well as poetic analyses that address practical ways to work on skills. Featuring poems by Traci Brimhall, Ada Limón, Matthew Olzmann, and Frank X Walker, among others, The Strategic Poet: Honing the Craft is a combination of anthology and guide—ideal for any poet seeking to produce dynamic work. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1947896482

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