Best Books for Writers

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

  • Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers

    by
    Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, editors
    Published in 2019
    by University of Washington Press

    “A lot has changed since the publication of Aiiieeeee!” writes literary scholar Tara Fickle in the foreword of the third edition of this historic anthology edited by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong. “But we could also say that a lot has changed because of Aiiieeeee!; or that Aiiieeeee! presciently anticipated these changes, not least by highlighting the vibrant diversity of Asian American experience in the literature.” Forty-five years after its original publication in 1974, this reissue carries the anthology into a contemporary discussion about American literary traditions, featuring fourteen works by authors such as Momoko Iko, Wallace Lin, Toshio Mori, John Okada, and Sam Tagatac. This classic and inspiring collection is a reminder of the essential place Asian American writers hold in the American literary canon. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0295746487
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

    by
    Audre Lorde
    Published in 2020
    by Penguin Classics

    “These collected writings, passed down to each of us, hold the power of information. Each of us holds to our chest what solidifies our understanding of our place in this world. What can a body do with such an understanding?” writes Mahogany Browne in the foreword to this collection of writings by Audre Lorde, reissued for Penguin Classics as a part of the Penguin Vitae series. Known for her groundbreaking writings on race, gender, and sexuality, the fifteen essays and speeches in this book, including “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” do the difficult work of connecting one’s written work to the intersections of identity and social change. This influential text is not only a must-have for any writer for its incisive and lyrical prose but an essential text for anyone seeking to connect with another. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0143134442
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry

    by
    Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
    Published in 1997
    by Norton

    “Within these pages you’ll find not only a guide to the nuts and bolts of how poems are made, but discussions ranging from how to tackle your subjects to how to cope with rejection and self-doubt,” write Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in the preface to this 1997 book on the craft of poetry, which features essays and curates poems on a range of topics such as imagery, the music of the line, voice and style, writing the erotic, and the energy of revision. Throughout the guide, the two renowned poets encourage and challenge writers of all levels to write about one’s own life and to be unafraid of taking risks, equipping each chapter with writing prompts and tips on how to begin a poem. Readers will be led through the ins and outs of what it is like to be a poet, emphasizing the power of imagination and language. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393316544
  • The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song

    by
    Ellen Bryant Voigt
    Published in 2009
    by Graywolf Press

    “This structure—this architecture—is the essential drama of the poem’s composition,” argues Ellen Bryant Voigt about syntax in this timeless installment from The Art Of series published by Graywolf Press and edited by Charles Baxter. “With poetry as with music, the first step toward mastery is recognition.” With thorough discussions of prosody and syntax, Voigt parses out line by line the music of poetic language in works by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, and others, examining what it is they deploy technically that allows meaning to come together. At times overwhelming with detail, this influential craft book carries a glossary in the back with key prosody terms, making it an indispensable book for all writers to return to, again and again, as they hone the music of their language. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1555975319
  • The Hatred of Poetry

    by
    Ben Lerner
    Published in 2016
    by FSG Originals

    “Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is,” writes Ben Lerner in this book-length essay that denounces and defends the art form by tracking the history of the public’s perception of the genre, beginning with its hatred by Greek philosophers and following through with close reading of poets such as Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Marianne Moore, and Walt Whitman. Through this personal and inventive examination, Lerner identifies and elucidates what drives readers to hate poetry and what it is that makes the genre transcendent. “All I ask the haters—and I, too, am one—is that they strive to perfect their contempt,” writes Lerner. “Even consider bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0865478206
  • Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader

    by
    Vivian Gornick
    Published in 2020
    by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    “I sometimes think I was born reading,” writes Vivian Gornick in Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader, a collection of essays that tracks the books the critic and memoirist has read over and over again, helping to shape her storied life and prolific writing career. Through incisive and intimate writing, Gornick finds herself identifying with opposing characters in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and considering the veracity of memory through Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, as well as discussing the prose of writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Natalia Ginzburg, and Doris Lessing. Part memoir and literary criticism, Gornick’s book is a reminder of the importance of reading for a writer’s life and how it helps one “feel the power of Life with a capital L.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0374282158
  • Appropriate: A Provocation

    by
    Paisley Rekdal
    Published in 2021
    by Norton

    Paisley Rekdal’s collection of essays Appropriate: A Provocation includes six letters on the subject of cultural appropriation. In the first letter titled “An Invitation,” Rekdal addresses a student from a writing workshop whose poem is written in the voice of a Black nurse working in their white grandmother’s home in Georgia. Rekdal recounts how the discussion never devolves into open hostility, but “didn’t make anyone feel better for having participated in it,” prompting her to ask a central question: “When we write in the voice of people unlike ourselves, what do we risk besides the possibility of getting certain facts, histories, and perspectives wrong?” In a timely work that outlines how the idea of cultural appropriation has evolved over time, Rekdal discusses authors from William Styron to Peter Ho Davies to Jeanine Cummins, introducing a framework to one of the most polemical subjects in contemporary literature. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1324003588
  • Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms

    by
    Alan Ziegler
    Published in 2014
    by Persea Books

    Composed of short form pieces from the sixteenth century to the present, this anthology edited by Alan Ziegler gives readers a sense of the long tradition of the form and how authors across generations continue to influence one another. Arranged chronologically by the year of each author’s birth, there are prose poems, short-short stories, brief essays, fragments, and more from writers such as Louise-Sébastien Mercier, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Octavio Paz, Lydia Davis, Kimiko Hahn, and Claudia Rankine. Ziegler, who instituted a Short Prose Forms class at Columbia University in 1989, encourages writers to think past genre: “Perhaps space constriction lends itself to work that subverts expectations, or maybe when writers work in a renegade form they feel free to throw caution to the winds of imagination.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0892554324
  • Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

    by
    Jane Hirshfield
    Published in 1998
    by Harper Perennial

    “For most members of a community, the liminal is a point of transition, entered briefly,” writes Jane Hirshfield in this collection of essays on creativity and storytelling. “For some, though, the liminal becomes their only dwelling-place—becomes home. A writer must invent for himself how to live in this way.” In these nine essays, Hirshfield delves into the roots of poetic craft by examining what she calls “the mind of concentration,” expanding upon what the writer’s role is in a community, the origins of poetry in oral memory, and the nature of perception and self-expression. Written to serve the general reader as well as the working writer, Nine Gates offers strategies for language and thought that allow meaning to be developed and emotion to be expressed with clarity. 

    ISBN: 
    9780060929480
  • The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Fifth Edition

    by
    Lewis Turco
    Published in 2020
    by University of New Mexico Press

    “It should go without saying that the more one knows how to do, the more one can do,” writes Lewis Turco in this fifth edition of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. This go-to reference guide has been revised to aid the contemporary reader and writer, and includes classic rules of scansion, a Form-Finder index, and new examples and terms for all forms of poetry and verse. Heralded for Turco’s engaging style, this companion, sometimes referred to as “the poet’s bible,” defines, explains, and contextualizes basic concepts so any writer looking to challenge their writing can step up to the task. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0826361882
  • Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey

    by
    Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
    Published in 2016
    by Europa Editions

    “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” writes the elusive author of The Days of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend in this collection consisting of over twenty years of personal letters, essays, reflections, and interviews about writing. Organized chronologically, the pieces depict in intimate detail what it is to embody a passion for writing, including the joys and anxieties of composing a story, and the choice to allow books to live autonomously from an author’s identity. Through a revealing self-portrait of Elena Ferrante’s craft, readers and aspiring writers are offered a glimpse of what a life committed to one’s writing looks like. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1609452926
  • How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love With Poetry

    by
    Edward Hirsch
    Published in 2000
    by Harvest Books

    “Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night,” advises Edward Hirsch in How to Read a Poem. “These poems have come from a great distance to find you.” With accessible language and encyclopedic knowledge, Hirsch offers a guide on how to enjoy reading poetry, proposing the possibility of forming an intimate relationship with the genre through moving commentary on works by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, and Walt Whitman, among others. Throughout these essays, Hirsch places the reader in the shoes of a great adventurer set to embark on a new journey, reminding them of the reason one becomes a reader of literature in the first place: “Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0156005661
  • Who Says? Mastering Point of View in Fiction

    by
    Lisa Zeidner
    Published in 2021
    by W. W. Norton

    An in-depth examination of one of the most critical choices facing writers of fiction, novelist Lisa Zeidner’s craft manual includes hundreds of examples from both classic and contemporary fiction—from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Lorrie Moore’s “Two Boys”— to explore how plot, characters, descriptions, and even distinctions between literary and commercial fiction are tied to point of view. In chapters devoted to different perspectives, from omniscient and first-person to second-person and child narrators, Zeidner offers the reader a variety of factors to consider before choosing a point of view for their next story or novel. “Deciding about point of view requires an assessment about whether you’re moving toward your subject, or whether you’re moving away,” she writes. “Whether you’re going to encourage the reader to bathe in the character’s view of the world, or offer a complementary or even competing one.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393356113
  • A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet

    by
    Eavan Boland
    Published in 2012
    by Norton

    “This is a book of being and becoming. It is about being a poet. It is also about the long process of becoming one,” writes Eavan Boland in the preface of A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet. These essays offer a rare view of the intimate and lifelong journey of becoming a poet, a process that “doesn’t stop because the being has been achieved” but that continues and shifts along with the writing. Beginning with personal narratives that offer striking imagery and meditations, Boland places focus on women poets and their work over the last century, including Charlotte Mew and Sylvia Plath, interweaving incisive analysis with testimonies of personal significance. The Irish poet, who died in 2020, pays homage to the craft of poetry and the writers who helped her find her place amongst contemporary literature’s most celebrated poets. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393342321
  • One Writer’s Beginnings

    by
    Eudora Welty
    Published in 2020
    by Scribner

    In a mix of memoir and exploration on the craft of writing fiction, Eudora Welty reflects on her upbringing in Jackson, Mississippi, and how it shaped her personality as well as writing style. With family anecdotes and vivid descriptions of life during the Jim Crow era, Welty paints the picture of how writing is ultimately a mix of experience, memory, and imagination, allowing the reader to reflect on their own childhood and locate the root to one’s creative beginnings. This updated edition includes a new introduction by former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, in which she describes the book as “a kind of primer for being a citizen of the world, for answering our own particular callings and joining the long conversation that is human history.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1982151775
  • The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom

    by
    Felicia Rose Chavez
    Published in 2021
    by Haymarket Books

    With a mix of memoir and progressive teaching tools, Felicia Rose Chavez calls to create a classroom that exposes the invisible and physical forces of power that have dominated the traditional writing workshop for decades. Inspired by June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint (Routledge, 1995), Chavez offers a step-by-step guide on how to deconstruct biases and build community through a democratic teaching model that fosters “engagement, mindfulness, and generosity.” With chapter titles such as “Owning the Language of Craft,” “Teaching Writers to Workshop,” and “Promoting Camaraderie and Collective Power,” this book can help transform the worldview of how writing should be taught and liberate the minds of reader, writers, and educators. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1642592672
  • Poetics of Relation

    by
    Édouard Glissant, translated from the French by Betsy Wing
    Published in 1997
    by University of Michigan Press

    In Poetics of Relation, author and philosopher Édouard Glissant challenges the traditional thinking behind the craft of writing. Glissant uses the particular history and reality of the Caribbean to argue that the writer, politically and aesthetically, can tap into the unconscious of a people and provide forms of memory capable of transcending “nonhistory.” With concrete examples from James Joyce to Baudelaire, Heraclitus to Creole proverbs, Glissant also encourages writers to imagine new forms of syntax for their sentences. As translator Betsy Wing writes in the introduction to the book, “Glissant's intent, finally, is to realize Relation in concrete terms—in which language is made of rocks and words and in which the future can be made to open for the Antilles by beating a time other than the linear, sequential order of syntax.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0472066292
  • Suppose a Sentence

    by
    Brian Dillon
    Published in 2020
    by New York Review Books

    “For about twenty-five years I have been copying sentences into the back pages of whatever notebook I happen to be using,” writes Brian Dillon in the introduction to Suppose a Sentence, a meditative collection of essays on sentences in literature that have captivated the critic and author of Essayism. The book follows an addictive format of featuring a single sentence—from authors such as James Baldwin, Joan Didion, John Dunne, and Shakespeare—and then using the essay to mull on aspects about Dillon’s reading experience, each essay short and complex, as well as personal and enriching. Suppose a Sentence satisfies the writer as much as the reader of literature, as Dillon makes a case, again and again, for the moving and lasting power of the sentence.   

    ISBN: 
    978-1681375243
  • Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays

    by
    Claire Messud
    Published in 2020
    by Norton

    “Literary language is a kind of spell, a performative utterance: words conjure worlds out of air,” writes Claire Messud in the introduction to her essay collection, which blends autobiography and criticism into a portrait of a life spent celebrating art and literature. Beginning with a series of personal essays on subjects such as her childhood move from Connecticut to Australia, her relationship with the women in her family, and visiting her father as he’s nearing the end of his life, readers get a glimpse into the life of a gifted storyteller, whose criticism is a window into learning about the transformative qualities of art and literature. Venturing into contemporary classics by writers such as Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Valeria Luiselli, as well as works of art by Marlene Dumas, Sally Mann, and Alice Neel, this book is instructive as much as it is redemptive, an examination of how seeing a work of art can align with seeing one’s own unexpected story play out. 

    ISBN: 
    978-1324006756
  • The Poetics of Space

    by
    Gaston Bachelard, translated from the French by Maria Jolas
    Published in 2014
    by Penguin Books

    First published in 1958, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space asks readers to consider the emergence of the poetic image and its metaphorical relationship to the intimate spaces of the home. Guided by lyrical and philosophical arguments, this examination on art, poetry, and consciousness itself challenges readers to think back to the domestic spaces that shape one’s dreams and memories: rooms, cellars, drawers, chests, wardrobes, corners, and nests, among other places. Sure to unlock imagination and encourage examination, this book is a guide full of inspiration for any writer. As Bachelard writes, “We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0143107521
  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

    by
    Toni Morrison
    Published in 1992
    by Harvard University Press

    “I intend to outline an attractive, fruitful, and provocative critical project, unencumbered by dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at fortress walls,” declares Toni Morrison in the first of three essays included in this iconic critical text dissecting the “Africanist” presence that exists throughout classic American literature. Morrison’s examinations argue that the themes of individualism and freedom in the works of authors such as Cather, Hemingway, Melville, and Poe would not be possible without the enslavement of African Americans, dispelling preconceived notions about literary tradition and encouraging readers to think and read beyond the confines of American literature. Morrison creates an instant classic that sets out to sharpen the imagination and toolset for anyone to carry into the act of reading, writing, and living. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0674673779
  • At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life

    by
    Fenton Johnson
    Published in 2020
    by Norton

    Although it was written prior to COVID-19 and published just as the pandemic was spreading around the globe, Fenton Johnson’s meditation on accepting and celebrating one’s solitude is a timely look at the lives and works of eleven writers and artists he calls “solitaries,” a term borrowed from Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton. In chapters devoted to Emily Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Eudora Welty, Walt Whitman, and others, Johnson, an emeritus professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona who serves on the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program, explores the alchemy that transforms isolation and loneliness into creative solitude. 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393608298
  • The Work of Revision

    by
    Hannah Sullivan
    Published in 2013
    by Harvard University Press

    In The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan argues that the history of revision is a relatively new trend inherited from the avant-garde experiments of the modernists, a badge of honor for writers anxious to justify the difficulty of their work. Dating back to how Alexandrian editors surveyed Homer’s works, Sullivan considers the virtues of redrafting and examines changes made in manuscripts and proofs by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and others, illustrating how the impulse to keep rewriting can sometimes go too far. Both craft writing manual and historical analysis, this book will shed light on practices writers have come to understand as commonplace, sharpening the praxis of prose writers and poets alike. 

    ISBN: 
    9780674073128
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

    by
    George Saunders
    Published in 2021
    by Random House

    Based on a class he has taught for years at Syracuse University, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is George Saunders at his best: funny, frank, rigorous yet accessible, and most of all humane. Paired with the full text of the author’s favorite stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, these essays explore not only how fiction works and why fiction written up to 185 years ago (in the case of Gogol’s “The Nose”) is as relevant now as it has ever been, but also how writing can change a reader’s life and become a fundamental part of one’s moral and ethical beliefs. As Saunders writes: “The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part of the mind that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-1984856029
  • The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction

    by
    John Dufresne
    Published in 2003
    by Norton

    Drawing inspiration from the principles of method acting, John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth demystifies the writing process and covers the basics of the craft, including how to invent characters, develop a voice, and revise work. Through literary analysis of the works of Anton Chekhov, Frank O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and others, as well as sets of writing exercises for each chapter, Dufresne creates a practical and comprehensive guide with steps on how to become a confident storyteller. As Dufresne writes in the introduction, “No one else can or will give you permission to write, so don’t even ask.” 

    ISBN: 
    978-0393325812

Pages